Somewhere in the Mojave desert, miles away from the last Joshua trees, stands a ten-foot tall sand wall that reaches into the distance as far as the eye could see. The sidewalk in front of the wall is made from the same flexible material, stretching to absorb anything or anyone that dares make contact during the blazing days and contracting to hide the evidence during the frigid nights. Occasional wild blooms and singing sand dunes dot the landscape. Like the sidewalk, the wall is immune to the desert whims and stands guard to what’s hidden inside, expanding to inhale during the day and exhaling to expel at night. A living, breathing sentinel guarding a secret desert oasis. A single word in red letters appears on the wall: Rejoice!
“Rejoice,” Beau mumbled under his breath and smirked. “What a joke.” He swung his arm back and pitched the nano bottle at the wall, aiming for the dreadful word. The force of his throw made the bottle momentarily disintegrate, long enough for the nanos to disturb the red substance, before reassembling itself back into its original shape. The substance was highly viscous. It bled down the wall slowly in long, uneven streaks.
When Bluette looked over at Beau, tears were running down his face, mirroring the bloody ones crawling down the wall. She hadn’t wanted to come here. She begged him not to come. But he wanted to see it one last time. And now all she wanted was to comfort him. Take him in her arms and calm him. She followed his gaze to the wall and watched the slithering goo pool on the ground. Blu froze in horror as the material flowed under the nano bottle, oozing over the sidewalk and reaching its bloody hand toward them. She knew she had to take him away from this wall, from the bleeding hand, before something bad happened.
Blu looked nervously around but there was no one there. Not yet. The only sound was the whooshing of sand swept up by a passing desert wind, periodically punctuated by the flapping of 8-foot wingspans circling overhead beyond the wall. The Mojave scavengers are not too particular about what they consume, it just needs to be dead and rotted.
Blu put a reassuring hand on Beau’s arm, the way she did that very first time they met. Beau looked at her in silent acquiescence and let his body go limp. He hung his head and followed her back to the passenger side of the ancient GMC truck. Blu was the only person ever to arouse implicit trust in Beau. That comfortable, reassuring feeling when nothing needs to be said or done. When you just know.
No one who had made it alive from there was allowed to operate machinery. Survivors were considered unstable. Uncontrollable rage coupled with blockchain strength. It was a miracle Beau was still free. Though they both knew it was just a matter of time. People like him were not meant to go back to where they came from.
It all sounded so exciting when Beau first heard about it on the radio while looking for a job just a few months ago. Some guy made millions investing in bitcoin and selling before the big heist. Instead of buying an island in the Maldives, the guy, or Mr. Shitcoin, as Beau heard people say, decided to create his own blockchain society. It would have its own commercial districts, its own schools, its own houses, even its own e-gaming arena. And everything would run on the blockchain, which Beau gathered was some kind of a computer database of information contained in immutable blocks. “Tired of working everyday but only seeing your money twice a month? Join us and you will be paid for your work as you’re working. Tired of paying fees to your bank? Your broker? The government? Join us.”
Beau had been unemployed for close to a year. He never needed much money and saved most of what he made. But his savings were running low and though he could skip a meal here and there, he dreaded losing his place and going to the camps for the “Unproductive and Unemployed.” Being unemployed was bad enough.
Beau was let go from his last job for creeping out Lucy. Beau desperately wanted to connect with her. But he didn't know how. He followed her with his eyes whenever he saw her and didn’t notice the glances and whispers her friends shared with her about him. She looked kind from afar and resembled his mother from the few worn pictures he had left. If only Lucy could peer inside him she would know he meant no harm. One day Beau got up the nerve to approach her, and didn’t realize that the restroom was not an appropriate setting. Lucy ran away from him before he had a chance to say anything. Beau was told not to come in the next day and his work pass was disabled.
Though Beau was a talented concrete bricklayer and loved his job, he never lasted anywhere long enough for his foreman to see how good he was. Even Beau didn’t know how good he was. He had been fired from every job he ever had. Prior to finding Beau this last job, his life counselor warned him that if he got written up one more time on his job report, he would become unhireable. She was right.
Beau was tall and broad-shouldered and fit. He wasn’t ugly. But he tried to connect with women by staring and following them around. He would have the perfect thing to say each time in his mind but never be able to get it out. It’s as though his lips were frozen in place. Women assumed he was antisocial and stayed away. Beau could tell they were afraid of him but he did not know how to persuade them otherwise. Every time he tried, the words wouldn’t come out. He kept hoping someone could look inside him. If he found that one person he knew he would be able to speak.
And now he was officially unhireable. Beau was terrified they would think he was a violent incel to boot. There had been a spate of attacks recently by sexually frustrated young men. Sure Beau was sexually frustrated, he figured everyone was, but he wasn’t going to be violent about it. From the ad, Mr. Shitcoin not only promised to supply Beau with a job, but also, potentially, a partner. Beau checked his bank account: $2,000 is all he had left. Certainly not enough for rent or much else. With nothing to lose, he decided to apply to join Mr. Shitcoin’s “Desert Block, LLC” community. What’s the worst thing that could happen, he reasoned.
Beau didn’t really understand how the whole thing worked. How an entire community could be built on a blockchain. He doubted anyone did. He read somewhere that blockchain miners produced bitcoin, whatever that meant. Some people said that bitcoin was a scam, no better than a ponzi scheme and that Mr. Shitcoin just happened to time the market right. There were rumors that Mr. Shitcoin had help, that some techy genius told him when to buy and when to sell and in return Mr. Shitcoin had to run “Desert Block, LLC,” the first community of its kind.
The LLC purchased hundreds of miles of dry Nevada desert. Its only human neighbors were the sex workers and their patrons at the nearest brothel. The ad said that the homes and the commercial facility where the first inhabitants would live and work already had been built. The buildings were modular and could easily expand upwards, growing towards the sky when more people moved in. Scam or not, the concept of blocks of information making a chain of life appealed to Beau. He imagined it was like laying bricks one on top of another to build a structure, only in software.
Beau would never forget orientation day. A white van picked him up. Every time the vehicle picked up more people, it reconfigured itself to accommodate the additional load. Reminded Beau of when he and his grandfather would play with his grandfather’s old transformer toys. “Transformers, more than meets the eye, transformers, robots in disguise,” Beau remembered his grandfather humming to him softly when Beau was small. His grandfather raised Beau and died when Beau was nineteen. It had been four years since his grandfather died.
Beau didn’t remember his parents, and his grandfather never spoke of them. All Beau had were some old pictures. Without any memories or emotional ties, the pictures could have been of anyone and they would have produced the same feelings in Beau. Although his grandfather fed and clothed Beau, he never showed his grandson any affection, except when they played with the transformers. He considered affection a dangerous luxury detrimental to his orphan grandson’s future. Beau grew up never having been hugged by anyone. And now, sitting in the van reminded Beau of the only good he experienced in his short life. His grandfather would have loved it. If this is what it meant to live on the blockchain, Beau couldn’t wait.
Beau looked over his fellow passengers. Most were single, male and female young-somethings dressed in t-shirts or plaid button-downs over worn jeans. Some of the last people to get on the van, living far on the outskirts of the city, were families with small kids. They spoke quietly in Spanish among themselves. The adults had small numbers tattooed on their foreheads, the telltale signs of illegals branded by the government for deportation. When Beau received his acceptance letter, it made him feel like he was lucky to have been chosen out of countless competing applicants. Looking around the van, he wondered if he and everyone else there were picked for a reason, having nothing to do with luck. They all looked just like him - people with nothing to lose. It didn’t matter. He had nothing waiting for him back in the city.
They drove for many hours past the dirt and garish Los Angeles signs. Outside the city, Beau watched the soft lights of the homesteads cast into the night sky, growing more and more dim, until all was dark outside. There was a certain peacefulness about it. He had left everything behind, they all had, and yet everyone seemed content. They were told that everything they needed would be provided for them. A new life to replace the old. All they had to do was commit. Beau was nervous but didn’t have much to begin with and was excited to start again. He fidgeted in his seat, slightly.
All of the sudden the van began slowing down as it approached some lights in the distance. When Beau looked outside his window, he saw a massive wall with lights mounted on top of it, illuminating letters on the wall. While squinting to make out the writing, he noticed two shapes by the wall. One of the figures was spray painting over some of the letters. “Rejoice! Desert Cock Welcomes You!” The “b” and “l” in “Block” crudely had been turned into a “C.”
Everyone on the bus chuckled. The van lurched to an abrupt stop. The driver got out and started running towards the people by the wall. Beau saw them notice the driver and sprint along the wall towards his side of the van. As one of the figures ran past, it stared straight at him, locking eyes momentarily. Those eyes - lit up for an instant by the light on top of the wall - looked bright and fierce, the color of the desert itself at twilight. It felt like the person looked right through Beau. He watched transfixed as the figure disappeared from his line of site. Beau had an inexplicable, strong urge to get out of the bus and run after the person.
Before Beau could do anything, the driver returned and drove past the vandalized welcome sign. Then the van turned directly in front of the wall, as if it meant to go through the wall, and stopped. An invisible black line appeared to run down the length of the wall. The chasm grew wider, revealing a hidden entrance. Once the entrance was wide enough for the van to pass, it proceeded inside, driving into complete blackness. Then, as if someone had turned on the lights, there was an entire city in front of the van, including see-through buildings with spinning floors and retractable roofs. Enclosed bridges at different heights connected the translucent structures and what looked like dozens of Sophia the Robot roamed the streets. The parents on the bus pulled their kids close to them. Beau felt himself shudder though he wasn’t sure why. The van drove under a suspended glass bridge and stopped in front of a building unlike the glass buildings they had just driven past.
Headphones dropped down from the ceiling of the van and the passengers cautiously put them on.
“Good evening, everyone!” a disembodied voice said cheerily at them.
“If you would all please turn to your right side and look out the window. There you are.” A middle-aged male hologram floating outside the window waved at them.
“I am John Long, but please call me Mr. Bitcoin. I want to welcome you to Desert Block. Apologies for the disturbance at the front gate. We will have that painted over straight away. I guess there are hooligans everywhere, even in remote places like this. Welp, I am sure you are all tired from your long journey, and I want you to get plenty of rest before we begin formal integration tomorrow morning. Please follow your Sophia, who will show you to your dormitory.” He pointed to a small army of identical female robots standing at attention to his right. “Let us be glad and rejoice forever in that which we create. Rejoice!” And with that the hologram disappeared.
Everyone poured out of the bus and was met by their Sophia.
“Good evening, Beau, please follow me.” Beau walked inside the nondescript building and followed Sophia up the stairs to the second floor. The building reminded him of his utilitarian college dorm: narrow hallways, cold lights, rooms close to each other and no elevator.
As though reading his mind, Sophia said, “This is no ordinary building, Beau. These walls (she slowly pointed to the walls on either side of the hallway) may look like what you saw back home, but they are made from bio-concrete. It’s a self-healing material.”
Beau looked at Sophia with a skeptical furrowed brow.
“The concrete has bacteria living in it that can repair any leaks or cracks. They remain dormant until some provocation - say a crack lets in water and voila! They spring to life and repair the concrete, making it whole again.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Beau said, wondering if this bacteria could live in the bricks he lay back home. He noticed he had no trouble speaking to Sophia. Probably because she wasn’t human, he figured, but still. He immediately liked Sophia.
“I agree, Beau.” Sophia walked down the hall and stopped in front of Room 7. She looked at Beau and a flash went off from her eyes. Beau squinted from the sudden intense bright light.
“What was that for, Sophia?”
“I have just paired your face with your door,” Sophia responded, “and it will now open automatically only for you. We use biometrics here for many purposes.”
Inside, the room was small and plain, albeit comfortable-looking. There was a floating bed in the corner by a window and a small table and chair with a tiny kitchen by the door.
“By the bed is your closet with all the clothes you may need. Breakfast and dinner will be served at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. by Kit.”
A robotic arm emerged from an adjacent wall and waved at Beau. Beau’s breath momentarily caught in his throat and the color drained from his face. Sophia chuckled.
“Don’t worry, Beau. Kit is your friend. Kit will take some vitals - please be still when she does.”
Out of Kit’s finger appeared a needle which extracted a drop of Beau’s blood. The flat side of Kit’s hand touched Beau’s forehead measuring his temperature.
“The results of your bloodwork and body temperature will let Kit know what foods to prepare for you. If you’re low on iron or too high on creatine, for example, Kit will adjust your meals accordingly to feed your body what it needs. Don’t worry, we won’t need to check your blood every day.”
Kit produced a bracelet and put it around Beau’s wrist.
“This bracelet will measure all your mineral and vitamin levels. I hope you will be very happy here, Beau. I will be just outside your door if you need anything. Good night and Rejoice!”
There was that word again. What is it with these people, Beau thought to himself. And what “people”? Mr. Bitcoin was just a vision of a person and Sophia was AI. Beau walked over to the bed and dropped onto it, exhausted. Had he made a mistake coming here? He had a lot to process, but now all he wanted was sleep. Out of the corner of his eye he saw an iPad and a water bottle standing on the small floating nightstand between his bed and the window. Beau turned on the iPad and saw a never-ending list of books to choose from. He enjoyed reading books and was pleased with this gift. He then picked up the water bottle. On it was a note: “Welcome to your new home, Beau. This is a nano bottle. It is made from the latest nano technology. It is incredibly strong and pliable at the same time. Enjoy.” Beau picked up the grey bottle and twirled it in his hand. It was pretty light. When he squeezed it hard, the bottle changed its shape to the contours of his squeezing hand. When Beau lessened his grip, the bottle resumed its shape. “Transformer bottle, neat.” Beau closed his eyes and fell fast asleep cradling the bottle.
“Wake up, Beau.” Beau woke with a start taking a moment to remember where he was. He stretched and rubbed his eyes. Luckily Kit’s arm was at a safe distance fussing in the kitchen. “Your breakfast will be ready after you shower and dress.” Beau stretched again and looked out the window at the city. It looked different in the morning though still beautifully glinting from the bright sunlight reflecting off its sleek metal and glass framework. While showering, Beau noticed how clean everything was and it made him smile. He liked cleanliness but hated cleaning. The clothes were adequate – plain khakis and polo shirts.
“Here is your breakfast, Beau: 3-egg omelet with spinach and 16 ounces of water.”
“Thanks, Kit. I don’t love spinach and may I have coffee?”
“Sorry Beau. Coffee is dehydrating. You’re pretty dehydrated so no coffee until we get you nice and watered. You’re also low on iron so I’ll see what else I can make for you tomorrow instead of spinach. Eat, please, because you need to report to work by 7:45 a.m. Sophia will show you where to go.”
Beau met Sophia just outside his door.
“Good morning, Beau. I hope you slept well. Please follow me.”
Beau followed Sophia outside. It was a cloudless, warm day. The desert heat wouldn’t peak until midday. As they walked past the beautiful glass buildings, some of them seemed to disappear and then reappear again. Beau rubbed his eyes; perhaps they were still adjusting to the morning brightness. There wasn’t much vegetation outside the glass and metal city. But inside the city, lush green bushes and flowering willows grew between the buildings perfectly maintained on sidewalks. The city reminded Beau of a futuristic one he had seen in a movie years ago. Except no one seemed to occupy this city.
“Here we are,” Sophia stopped in front of a glass building that stood apart from the rest of the city they just walked by. She motioned for Beau to go up the stairs. “I will pick you up at 5:30 p.m.” It seemed strange that Sophia would need to bring Beau back since he knew where to go and couldn’t possibly get lost. Beau wondered if Sophia would walk him to and from work every day. He didn’t really mind.
Walking up the stairs Beau was joined by the rest of the people from his van the night before. He was secretly glad to see them again even though he hadn’t met any of them yet. Everyone quietly greeted each other. The doors of the building flew open automatically, and Mr. Bitcoin as hologram was smiling broadly at everyone.
“Do come in and follow me to your workspace.” They walked quietly down a long corridor to a big room with chairs on one side of a long table lined with computers.
“Please, have a seat. I will give you a few minutes to get situated.”
A short, young man with glasses and a huge grin sat down next to Beau.
“Hi, I’m Inigo.” Inigo extended his hand to Beau.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Beau.”
“This is all pretty wild, huh?”
“I guess so.”
“My parents freaked when I told them I was coming here,” Inigo whispered. “They said this is a government experiment and we’re all fools for coming.”
Beau looked quizzically at Inigo.
“To see how the human body can withstand so much immersion in technology.” Inigo explained. “Let them experiment, I told my parents. Hehe.” Beau didn’t know what to make of what Inigo said. Experiment?
“I want to officially welcome you all to Desert Block. Together we will create our community, built entirely on blockchain, the first of its kind. The city you see outside - the beautiful glass buildings with the enclosed connecting bridges - is not yet built. You will build it.” That explained it, thought Beau. It was a hologram city.
“Have you ever heard of a supercomputer?” the hologram continued.
“Here you will help your supercomputer solve difficult mathematical problems. The fastest computer each day will get a prize - extra bitcoin deposited into your account. Our city will be free. All the infrastructure, all the projects, every transaction needed to run the city will be backed up by each block on the blockchain and visible to all. We will be a model for the rest of the United States and will revolutionize the world. We will be transparent and democratic.”
Beau shifted in his seat. He wasn’t sure about being a model for the rest of the country. He didn’t sign up to join a revolution. But at least he had a job, and a clean apartment, and he didn’t have to worry about the camps for the “Unproductive and Unemployed.”
“You may wonder why we have a 10-foot wall surrounding us. We think our community will be so radical that people outside will get angry because they won’t understand. Did you know that fifty years ago, when the Internet was first created, scientists predicted that it would collapse? Can you imagine? We humans can be notoriously wrong in making predictions about things we do not understand and are afraid of.” The hologram laughed and the image glitched producing a staccato laugh.
“I wouldn’t call him human,” Inigo whispered jokingly in Beau’s ear.
Bitcoin continued, “The wall is to protect you until we can show the world how beneficial our way is. We will redistribute power from central authorities to you, the people. We will work tirelessly until the development of blockchain permeates daily living and everyday routines. Everyone will have equal rights. Let us rejoice!”
After Bitcoin’s speech, the group was shown a training video on how to code. They then took a test which determined which people would continue coding and which people would perform other jobs. Maintaining the blockchain required an enormous amount of energy and those who weren’t talented coders worked on maintaining renewable energy sources needed to run the supercomputers. The community had solar panels and wind turbines and was learning how to harvest the power of rain and thunderstorms. It also had 3D printers which received their protocols from the blockchain and needed to be supervised. Alternatively, people could manage the agricultural output since the community was entirely self-sustaining. Inigo and Beau both passed the test for coding.
Weeks stretched into months. It turned out Beau was good at coding, his talent in bricklaying carried over into laying them in software. Beau earned extra bitcoin in his account almost daily. It felt good to be good at something. And Beau finally had a friend. Inigo and Beau sat next to each other while coding. Inigo spoke to his parents every once in a while and filled Beau in on the news outside the community. Beau had little interest in the outside world and had no one to call anyway. Every night after work he went back to his room, ate his dinner and read from his iPad. He grew to enjoy Sophia’s company more and more walking to and from work every day. She knew a great deal about literature, and they would test each other with quotes whose origin the other would have to guess. This morning she quizzed Beau by saying: “I have such need of encouragement!”
“Don’t waste my time, Sophia.”
“Don’t you know it, Beau?” Sophia teased.
“Pozzo from Waiting for Godot,” he responded.
“Well done, Beau.”
Plus, the food wasn’t bad. He had improved his daily health scans and Kit was cooking some of his favorite meals. And Mr. Bitcoin promised that once they completed their first city block they would start an e-gaming arena for the community. That would be fun.
“Did you ever wonder why Shitcoin never appears in person?” Inigo asked Beau one day during lunch. Lunch was served by Sophias in the main building’s cafeteria.
“Because he’s not real,” Beau responded.
“Nah, he’s real alright. Saw a picture of him when he made all that money years ago selling bitcoin before the big heist, which by the way,” Inigo looked around to make sure no one was listening, “he may have participating in.” Beau didn’t really care so Inigo moved on.
“When I told my parents he appears only as a hologram they lost it. Said it confirms their fears,” Inigo continued.
“What fears?” Beau asked.
“That he knows how dangerous it is to live here. That’s why he’ll never show.”
“Why are you here, Inigo?” Beau asked, taking a bite of his all-plant-protein burger.
“I’m not afraid. I want to go as deep as I can. What if we can somehow merge with it - the technology? Can you imagine the possibilities of having computer brains?” Inigo said as he took a bite of his beloved peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Besides, Sophia makes the best PB&J on the planet.” Inigo winked at his Sophia.
“Yeah, that’s definitely a benefit to being here since they outlawed peanuts. No allergies here, I guess.”
Beau thought about what Inigo said about his parents but refused to dwell on it. He felt healthier than ever. The little nano bottle he got as a welcome gift that first night, which he carried with him everywhere, had gotten much easier to squeeze. Beau never felt stronger.
One morning while they were busy coding self-executing wills, Mr. Bitcoin interrupted with an important announcement. He said that they were ready to start working on expanding their community and that he had invited the first group of visitors.
“We would like you to tell them how you’re enjoying yourselves here. The more residents we have the more successful we will all become. Our first visitors are stopping by later today. I know it is a bit early in the development of our community, but our visitors are our neighbors and have been curious about us.”
Inigo leaned over to Beau. “This should be interesting.”
Beau looked blankly back at Inigo.
Inigo shook his head in disbelief.
“Our neighbors are working girls. You are so naive, Beau.” Inigo sized up his friend and said: “It’s somewhat annoying, but also refreshing.” He patted his buddy on the back. Bitcoin finished his speech by telling them that they would each be paired with someone.
“The rest is up to you. Rejoice!”
The introduction was held in a park inside hologram city just beyond the wall. Trees and bushes had been planted by the non-coders. There were also floating benches and a fountain as well as some glass and metal buildings built by the 3D printers. Beau was anxious to find out who he would be paired with. He wished it was a woman who would see through him and he would be able to speak with. He was glad for all his practice with Sophia. He sat on the floating bench nervously swinging his legs. Before he knew it Sophia was coming over to him with someone who looked familiar, even from far away. He was sure he knew the figure coming towards him. Who was she?
Dressed in shorts, tank top and dark glasses she was all sinewy limbs and olive tones. She walked looking straight ahead, swinging her arms slightly. She seemed so sure of herself, of her place in the world. She had no trouble speaking to anyone, Beau thought.
“Beau, this is Bluette,” Sophia said and walked away to stand with the other Sophias so that the group could speak with their visitors.
Bluette pulled her sunglasses up and rested them on top of her chestnut bob. “You can call me Blu, everyone calls me that.” She extended her hand and Beau greedily shook it.
“Bluette,” Beau repeated in his head. He looked into Bluette’s face and when their eyes met, he knew immediately that Bluette was the running figure from that first night. Beau was trembling with trepidation. He couldn’t understand what was happening. He just knew that he wanted Bluette near him. Always.
“You’re shaking,” Blu put a reassuring hand on Beau’s arm. Her arm made Beau feel safe. No one had ever tried to comfort him, much less a beautiful stranger. Except Blu didn’t feel like a stranger. Beau immediately stopped shaking. His entire body relaxed into profound gratitude.
“It is so nice to meet you, Blu,” Beau heard himself saying.
Beau and Blu spoke for a long time. They talked like long-lost friends might after reuniting for the first time. There was no awkwardness, no shyness. Talking to each other seemed like the most natural thing for both of them.
“Blu, it was really nice to meet you.”
“You too, Beau.”
“Would you consider moving here?” Beau asked, surprised by his sudden boldness.
“I, um, my life is complicated. I have a child. Anot. She is 8.”
“There are families here with kids. They have a nursery in the main building and Sophias play with them all day.”
“Don’t you know what they’re saying about you? Out there?” Blu pointed beyond the wall. Beau had access to news on his iPad, but he never looked. He only half-listened to what Inigo’s parents said. Life was so much better for him here he didn’t want to know. And he remembered what Bitcoin told them, that people on the outside did not understand and would be apprehensive.
“What are they saying?”
Blu’s face looked pained.
“That you’re all guinea pigs. There have been so many protests lately. Haven’t you heard anything? In the beginning no one knew about this place. I mean I saw the wall being built and my friend and I came here one night …” Blu hesitated. “That’s not important. The point is something happened and all of the sudden there was all this talk about this secret community in the desert and how there was no transparency…”
Beau interrupted, “Blu, they don’t understand.” Beau’s heart pounded in his chest. “People on the outside, they don’t understand. What we’re doing here is extraordinary and will make people’s lives better. This small community will one day revolutionize the whole world.” Beau wasn’t sure if he said that because he believed it or because he wanted to believe it.
Blu stared at Beau. “I mean, aren’t you worried about living so closely with all the technology? What might happen?”
Beau’s heart was beating so hard and fast it was reverberating in his ears.
“Do I look like a guinea pig, Blu?”
“I don’t know what to believe. Truth is, I didn’t come here today because I was really considering moving here. I came because they gave us money to come. They said just come and talk to the people who live here and, well, I need the money, Beau.” Blu bit her lip and looked away. “Doron, Anat’s father, he would never let me leave.” Beau stepped back from Blu.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were married.”
“I’m not married, Beau. I told you. It’s complicated. I have to go now.” Blu motioned to Sophia that she was ready to leave.
“Please, Blu, I must see you again. I…” Beau was frantic to make Blu stay but no other words came out of his throat.
Sophia led Blu away, and Beau watched her figure get smaller and smaller until she disappeared behind the wall. Out of nowhere Beau felt himself overcome by a wave of rage. He had never felt anything like it before. All he knew was that he needed to let the rage out. He grabbed the two-ton levitating bench and threw it in the direction of the wall. The bench flew through the air with incredible speed and smashed into a million pieces when it hit the sand wall, which bent a little to absorb the impact and then returned to its original position.
Everyone’s heads turned to watch the flying bench. But nothing was done about it. Beau could not understand his rage and how he could have hurtled the bench through the air like that. If he were back home, he’d be arrested for destroying public property and sent to counseling. But here no one said a thing and after a while Beau wondered if it ever happened at all.
Beau was curious by what Blu told him about the community. He began listening to the news at night when he came back from work. One evening he watched reporters broadcasting live from behind the wall. Beau shivered. The scene made him feel like he was a hostage. How long have these protests been going on and why wasn’t anyone talking about them inside the community? He flipped through the channels until he came across an interview with Bitcoin, the man.
“Mr. Long, I understand,” “Please, call me Bitcoin.” “Mr. Bitcoin, is there any kind of medical or mental monitoring of the people living in the community?” “Oh yes, our residents are tested around the clock. They’re very healthy.” “What happened to the Duarte family? I understand the children got very ill.” “People get sick, it happens,” Bitcoin responded curtly. “But sir, did you know that they tested positive for cellular poisoning?”
Cellular poisoning. The words socked Beau hard in the chest. Who were the Duartes? Why had he not heard that someone got sick? It was a small community. Did Inigo know? “No one is a prisoner. People may leave whenever they want…” he heard Bitcoin saying and flipped to another channel. It was a talk show with five women sitting around in armchairs with the title “Blockbuster” in big block letters behind them on the wall.
“Problem is the government doesn’t know what to do with these people. They sat on their hands while the community was getting built and ignored all the amicus briefs from these people’s relatives,” one of the talk show hosts was saying.
“I heard some say that the government was intentionally dragging its feet to see how it would all play out. Truth is, the people went voluntarily. The creation of the community wasn’t a secret, of course. We’ve all seen their advertisements, but the where and how were all secret, until of course the Duarte children got sick.”
“They created their own energy and weren’t jeopardizing the rest of the city with their massive energy consumption,” another host said.
“Are you saying the government was complicit in experimenting on these poor people?” the fourth host asked.
“Who knows, but here we are and these people are coming down with cellular poisoning.”
“Well, cellular poisoning is not contagious, but can be lethal in small children and those with compromised immune systems.”
“Yes, like those poor Duarte children.”
“And the biggest unknown is what it does to adults.”
What the hell was cellular poisoning!? Beau looked it up on his iPad. “Cellular poisoning prohibits the electron transport chain from occurring in the amygdala to the cerebellum. This vital process controls inhibitions and may ultimately cause personality changes. It also increases the size of muscle cells, leading to increased strength. The disease caused by cellular poisoning is progressive and irreversible. The side effects are different for each individual.”
Beau was gobsmacked. What had he done? He kept reading. “Causes are unknown but scientists posit a strong correlation with deep technology immersion.” Apparently there had been a few other communities around the world like Desert Block. They had all failed. Beau stormed out of his room. He needed to find his friend Inigo at once.
“Is something the matter, Beau?” Sophia, who was positioned as always outside Beau’s door, wanted to know.
“I need to see Inigo.” Sophia moved to the front of the door blocking Beau’s exit.
“It’s late, Beau. Inigo is resting. You can see him tomorrow.” Beau felt the angry wave starting to rise in him. His heart rate accelerated and his hands formed into fists.
“Sophia, I am leaving this room. You need to step away,” he said through clenched teeth.
“I can’t do that, Beau.” Beau had gotten used to carrying his nano bottle everywhere with him, and he was squeezing it at that moment in his right hand. The force of the pressure temporarily melted the bottle just as Beau started to raise his fisted hand reflexively. The melted bottle oozed into the pocket of Beau’s khakis.
“Why, Sophia?! Am I a prisoner?!”
“Beau, you need to calm down.”
Before Beau knew what he was doing his right hand punched Sophia with such force that her head disengaged from the rest of her robot body and dangled to the side. The light in Sophia’s eyes flickered on and off. Her speech became garbled static. Beau stepped back for a moment taking in his unexplainable rage and strength. He felt a pang of remorse and reached towards Sophia, with whom he had shared so many literary encounters. Then he quietly quoted from Sophia’s favorite Shakespeare play, the line Othello says before he kills Desdemona, “My heart is turned to stone: I strike it and it hurts my hand.” And with that he took off down the hall and to the stairs, racing past the other Sophias guarding their respective charges.
“Beau? Is that you?” Just before Beau ran out of the building Inigo spotted him.
“Inigo, I was hoping to see you.” Beau bent over to catch his breath. “There was an accident and … and my Sophia, Inigo, I think I killed her.”
“Okay, just relax. First of all, that explains all the commotion I was hearing from my room. Second, you can’t kill something that is not alive. That also explains why all the Sophias have abandoned their posts.” Beau and Inigo looked down an empty hallway. “They must all be gathering near your Sophia saying, ‘does not compute.’ Inigo stuck his arms out in front of him and walked in a circle, stiff like a robot.
“Stop it. I feel bad.”
“Okay, okay, Beau. What’s going on?”
“It’s all a lie, Inigo. And I can’t take it anymore. I think I have cellular poisoning.”
“Whoa, Beau. Slow down. What’s a lie?”
“Remember Shitcoin told us this would be the first community of its kind?”
“Yes.” Inigo remembered. “I figured it was not true because I read about another one in China. Didn’t I tell you about that? Oh, no. I did not. Because you didn’t want to listen to me!”
“I’m sorry, Inigo. You were right. And I think I’m sick. I have this rage that comes over me and then I get super strong - super human strength. And Blu was right, we’re all guinea pigs!”
“Well, I don’t feel any different. And you don’t look any different. Tell me, do you turn green when you get this super strength?” Inigo joshed. Beau looked sternly at Inigo, and Inigo changed topics. “Alright, alright. Blu is the girl you met on visitation day, right?” Beau shook his head up and down.
“I mean she is hot. But she’s a prostitute!”
Beau took a deep breath before responding.
“I don’t care. I love her and I’m going to find her.”
Inigo’s jaw dropped.
“Hold on there a second. You just met her.”
“I know I just met her. But I feel like I’ve known her forever. And Inigo, you know how I could never speak to any girl before? Blu is the first girl I’ve ever been able to speak to. She’s the one. And I think she feels it too.”
“What you have, Beau, is love poisoning. Shit is toxic.”
“Look, Inigo, I can’t stay here any longer.”
“Where will you go, Beau? You don’t have any family. You don’t have anywhere to go.”
“I don’t know, but Sophia wouldn’t let me leave my room to come see you, Inigo. That’s why I got so angry. I can’t stay here anymore and get more sick. I have to find Blu. Come with me.”
Inigo shook his head “no” and started backing away in the direction of his room. He dragged his hand hard across the hallway wall leaving a deep indentation in the bio-concrete.
“I can’t leave here, Beau.” His entire demeanor changed. He was no longer smiling. For the first time since Beau met him, Inigo looked scared and unsure of himself. It’s as though some invisible force was pulling Inigo back to his room. Beau stared at the hand print trail across the concrete wall. Before he could say anything to Inigo he heard a noise: the sound of perfectly synchronized footsteps coming down the stairs. The Sophias were coming.
“Inigo, I’m sorry, I have to go. I will come back for you.”
Beau took off running so fast that the half-built hologram city flew by him like a blip, a dying star far away. Before he knew it he was scaling the wall like a bug. Once on the other side, he registered the cameraman filming him and kept running. He ran away with nothing but the clothes on his back and the nano bottle which had resumed its shape in his pocket. All of the bitcoin he accumulated while working on the blockchain was gone - he had access to it only in the community. He did not care. He ran far out into the desert, into complete darkness.
He ran without stopping, never getting tired. Having left everything behind again he had nothing to look forward to anymore. The only thing keeping him company on his lonely run was the image of Blu that was never far from his mind. He wished to meet a girl that he would connect with on visitation day and he met her. Now all he wished for was to see her again.
He did not know how long he had been running. Although his eyes adjusted to the dark night, lit up solely by the stars and a full moon, he never saw the dark shape of the car.
The collision shook the old truck and woke its occupants.
“Stay in the car, baby.” Blu grabbed the flashlight and the gun she stole from Doron’s safe, opened the car door and slowly crept out. The dim light from inside the cabin provided enough illumination for Blu to see that laying on the ground, on its side, was the body of a man.
Blu was shaking with fear for who it might be. She was petrified it was the one she ran away from. Things got really bad last night. He wanted her to entertain an entire party. She just could not do it anymore. Something in her snapped. So when he fell asleep, she opened his safe, took the gun and some money, and she and Anat took off in his car.
Blu gripped the gun tightly with her left outstretched arm pointing at his head. In her right hand she held the flashlight. Then she kicked his leg gently. The body did not budge. She breathed in deeply and bent down close to his face pointing the flashlight straight at him. Goosebumps crawled all over her body. She couldn’t believe it. The man lying on the ground in the middle of the desert was the same man she had been fantasizing about ever since they met. It was Beau. Her heart swelled with happiness and relief. But was he alright? Had she killed him? She dropped to her knees and burst into tears. She had been holding in all of her stress and fear and anxiety and it all just spilled out of her.
“Are you okay, mommy?” Anat poked her head out of the car door.
“I don’t know, baby. Remember that nice man I told you about that I met? He is here. He must have run away.”
“Run away like us, mommy?”
Blu took Beau’s warm hand in hers. She squeezed his wrist gently and felt his strong pulse. Her body relaxed with relief.
Beau woke for the first time in his life in a sweet embrace. Blu had dragged him into the truck so he wouldn’t freeze in the frigid desert night. She cradled him and Anat in her arms under the thin space blanket. In replaying the events from last night the last thing he remembered was running. And thinking about her. And here she was. But how? If he were dreaming, he never wanted to wake up. Just then Blu shifted and woke with a smile. She told Beau how she found him, how she got there. That she was done with her old life and was going to start fresh for Anat. They both looked at the young girl sleeping peacefully curled up into a little ball.
Blu drove them to a diner. While they were eating eggs and bacon and hash browns and pancakes, someone on the augmented reality television hanging above their heads was talking about “Desert Block.” Each booth in the diner was equipped with a virtual reality headset and a microphone that could connect you to the person appearing on the screen for a live on-the-spot conversation. This technology allowed anyone to be a citizen journalist. And anyone could be found as long as they were near one of these devices and wanted to be found.
They all turned their attention to the interactive screen. The camera was panning over smoke-engulfed scraps of metal with occasional blurred out images partially covered in sheets. It looked like an old car junkyard. The once beautiful and promising glass and metal city was a burnt out shell of itself. Then a reporter at the scene in a hazmat suit said, “We don’t yet know what happened. All signs point to a riot.” The reporter stepped over a robotic leg and a little shoe. “An apocalyptic confrontation of human versus machine. Calls to Mr. Bitcoin have gone unanswered.” And then somberly, “We’re told there are human casualties.” The reporter put his right hand to his ear. “We have evidence of at least one survivor.” The television played a clip of Beau climbing down the wall and running away. The reporter continued, “These survivors may be ill and in need of help so please call the authorities if you encounter them.” The scene ended with the camera zooming in on the concrete wall and the welcome sign, which was now reduced to one word: Rejoice!
“Inigo!” Beau screamed at the screen.
“Beau, you’re shaking,” said Anat. The little girl looked scared.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Blu said to soothe her daughter. Blu put her hand on Beau’s hand.
“What happened last night, Beau?”
“I don’t know, I got angry because Sophia wouldn’t let me leave my room and I … I think I hurt her.”
“Beau, it’s ok. Sophia was a machine.”
“I think I’m sick. Cellular poisoning. I freaked and wanted out of there. I tried to persuade my friend Inigo to leave with me, but he wouldn’t. He got really weird when I asked him. He used to joke that he wanted to become one with blockchain. That he would become blockchain himself. I guess when I suggested leaving it triggered him. And then I don’t know.”
“Oh Beau.” Blu grabbed Beau’s hand tightly.
“What if I caused the riot, Blu? What if I’m the reason people are dead? What if I killed my only friend?” Beau’s eyes filled with tears.
“Beau, the place was a trap. You didn’t cause any of that. You wanted a better life. You didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“I have to go back,” Beau said calmly.
“What?! No, Beau.”
“I have to go back just one more time. I promised Inigo I would come back.”
Just then a bell rang through the screen, “We interrupt this program to bring you an urgent message from the President of the United States.” The President’s face took up the entire screen. When Beau looked up he felt like the President was staring directly at him.
“Beau Parker, you are the lone survivor of this horrible tragedy.” Beau twitched and sunk low in his seat. He looked around the diner to make sure no one could tell the President was addressing him.
“I want to make clear to you son, that you are not in any trouble. We want to help you. We know you’re sick. We think the poisoning can be reversed. But you have to turn yourself in. We need to test you before we can help you.”
Beau straightened himself up in his seat. He looked resolved watching the screen. Blu was frantic at Beau’s changed demeanor.
“Beau, you can’t turn yourself in,” she whispered while running her hand through his hair and looking around.
“That’s the President of the United States asking me to turn myself in. I can’t just ignore him. I can’t live my life like a fugitive. What will I do for money?”
“I can support us, Beau. I can go back…”
“No, absolutely not. You are NEVER going back, Blu.”
“Beau, I know you must be scared,” the President continued. “We, I accept responsibility for not monitoring Desert Block. Technological progress is good and blockchain had a lot of promise. It still does. But it needs to be regulated and that’s where we failed, son. We will set up another blockchain community, but safely this time. We will monitor cellular exposure and limit it. We will invite survivors from all the other failed blockchain communities in the world to come live in this safe community. Beau, son, we want you to run our new community. You are the most talented coder we have ever seen.”
Blu was shaking her head “no.”
“What other options do I have, Blu?”
Blu was crying. “It’s a trap.” She whimpered. “They want you to come in so they can experiment on you some more. They’ll never let you go this time. You’ll never be free. Please, Beau, we can run away. We can drive down to Mexico and disappear.”
“What do you mean let me go this time, Blu? Anyway, I have cellular poisoning. I am capable of god-knows-how-much damage and what if it gets worse? What if I hurt you one day?”
Beau reached for the headset. He paused for a moment looking at Blu and Anat. His heart pressed tight against his chest. Here was the family he never had that he so desperately wanted. And now he may lose them forever. What choice did he have? He put on the headset. The President was now able to see Beau’s booth.
“Well done, Mr. Parker. I would like to personally rejoice and welcome you aboard.”
The President then quickly turned to Blu and winked.