Tiers on Campus

“Tier One achieved,” sent via text recurred on his Facebook Messenger and every other account like a fun-house echo.

“No!” Tito shrieked, slipping his hand from beneath his iPhone OS 32. Clattering to the floor, the screen cracked.

“You have twenty-four hours to select a sense to give up,” a clinical voice soothed from the undamaged phone speaker.

“F-you!” With balled fists and his face turning fire-engine red, Tito stamped on the offensive device as if there were a Goliath bird-eating tarantula clinging to his pant leg.

Racing through the dorm hallway, Tito shouted at the sightless to clear the way. He shoved past the deaf and knocked down a damn Humanoid Life Form, AI’s with newly installed senses. They are as clumsy as first-time ice skaters. Slamming through the door to the outside, Tito ran. “If you do not reply to this message within the next twenty-three hours and fifty-eight minutes,” the voice came from his wristband.

With wild eyes and a triple-time heartbeat, Tito clawed at it, “a selection will be made for you according to the Articles of Pact 571.” Tearing the band away, he flung it.

At his car, Tito leaned on his knees while catching his breath. He considered making a run for Mexico. He’d heard they had distant relatives there. As soon as the thought hatched, Tito extinguished it. Mexico had installed vaporizing shields along its border, eliminating the illegal American problem in plumes of acerbic steam.

He’d done OK with the Tiers till now. By using antiquated devices, he maintained below average web connect times. If students weren’t diligent, their implant chips automatically connected, skyrocketing their plug-in times, putting them in danger of Tier violations.

Tito’s pestering of Abby in Chem class accrued no cost. But to transition her from gal pal to girlfriend, he needed to use message flirting.

Online communications from his siblings increased when their mother’s bone cancer condition progressed from stage three to four. They had smartphones but refused to use the phone feature, even after reminders that they were adding to his Tier count.

Carmila: Remember your visit with Mama this week.
Vasola: She’s hanging on to watch you walk, Toto! You’re making us all proud.
Dean: Me and the girls have you covered till you graduate, Teets. Don’t worry about the loan on mom’s house.  You’ll pay us back once you have a good job.
Paula: I know it’s hard to see her this way, Tito. You’ll have regrets if you keep avoiding her.

Unlike his siblings, Mama had Tito fitted with a paper-thin implant chip when he was four; it would be the family’s entrance ticket to the world of affluence.

“I’ve got this!” Tito assured himself. “Tier One is minor; no one has to know.”

When a Tier status was claimed, nine out of ten times smell was the first to go. Classmates fearless enough to admit it claimed its absence was a simple way to trim tonnage.

Three years had passed since Pact 571 went into effect: it became a formula for societal success. Mother-borns were to focus on cultural interactions while AI’s would concentrate on data analysis and efficient system-wide management. Last year, Mother-born gray areas of gaming and messaging had been resolved. Because AI’s monitored and controlled the net, overuse of web services was deemed a trespass.

AI’s insatiable curiosity of all things Mother-born was to be curbed too. They were banned from making copulation simulations and restricted from hacking communications. Tiered trespass consequences were installed for encroachments on both sides.

If AI’s broke it, Mother-borns would gain disassembly or programming rights. Depending on the AI model, this could equate to several year’s salaries. If Mother-borns broke the Pact, AI’s were entitled to harvest senses.

photo credit: Steve Jurvetson flickr

Tito had seen a set of six-foot-tall robot dogs marching onto campus with a course set for Randy Packard. Students scattered like cockroaches exposed to light at their approach.  Already bereft of taste, smell, and sight, Randy’s terrified screams filled the quad when the dogs collected Tier Four.

Tito had yet to meet Mother-born with benefits from a Pact trespass.

20:19

Tito arrived at Mama’s empty house; its silence pressed upon him like a bloodless Reaper hand seeking his heart. When he imagined his mother’s cinnamon rolls tasting like egg cartons, Tito made a face. A text message from Paula appeared on the refrigerator, ‘At Dr.s’. Hm. Soon. She can’t wait to see you.’

Tito rummaged through the ample selection of casserole dishes in cold storage. Mounding a plate with various forms of neighborly support, Tito binged. He was finishing his last morsel when Paula arrived, pushing Mama in a wheelchair. This was new. Tito’s stomach clenched around the food glob, threatening to flip it like an omelet.

Mama’s over bright, medicated gaze locked onto her youngest. A gaping mouth was now her smile, spittle glistening at the corners. Tito noticed another missing tooth.  He had difficulty reconciling the strong mother of his youth with this fragile remnant of a woman, reaching for a hug. Holding his breath, Tito stepped into her embrace. His touch was as gentle as if she were spun of glass filaments.

She’d done everything for him, but in this, Mama failed. As her resistance to the forces eating her insides gave way, Mama’s attention collapsed upon itself. A fleeting hug was all she could manage.

Tito’s problems lay squarely upon his own shoulders, he’d already lost his sounding board and most empathetic supporter.

22:02

Tito lay on his bed watching Abby’s texts roll up the wall.

Hey Tit, where U been?
Y so quiet?
Starting to worry.
Want to play Forza 2nite?
Don’t make me wait too long. 😉

“Stop,” Tito responded. His word bubble appeared below hers. A dull ache settled over him as he calculated how long it would take to reach Tier Two. “On my way,” he said.

The common room in Abby’s dorm was decorated in cheerful blues and oranges. Plush carpet resembled grass and real pine trees in planter boxes lent the space a fresh, outdoorsy fragrance. Tito’s chest expanded as Abby approached. She flashed a forty-kilowatt smile and held her arms wide, “Tito!”

Crushing her against him, Tito lifted her off her feet, spinning them around. Setting her down, their eyes locked. Tito’s need to kiss her was tangible. He was a boulder, falling from a cliff, about to explode on impact. He resisted the urge.

“I made popcorn,” Abby covered his blunder with a peck on his cheek.

Tito followed her to the kitchen, he was a satellite caught in her magnetic orbit. While Abby’s back was to him, he tugged at a piece of her loose, shoulder-length hair. This was how they first met. When she didn’t respond, he tugged again, using more force.  Tito frowned. “Abby?”

Abby’s hair remained twined in his fingers. Her eyes darted to his hand, then back to his face. Her skin drained of color. Being in the Tiers was tantamount to social leprosy. “I gave up touch,” her strained whisper confirmed.

Tito gulped. Reaching around Abby, he plucked a popcorn kernel from the bowl. Placing it in his mouth, he closed his eyes, savoring the buttery, salty flavors as it melted. When it disappeared, he leaned in to kiss the luscious lips that would never know the texture of his.

23:10

Pulling away, Tito addressed a cabinet. “Pact 571,” a text box appeared, typing as he spoke, “Tier One selection; taste.”

Tito wondered if the dogs would show up exactly at the 24th hour and if the Humanoid Life Form receiving his Tier One would develop cravings for cinnamon rolls.

Answered Prayers

A hint of lemons on the ocean breeze coming through the open window brought a wistful smile to Marzia’s face as she pulled more wet laundry from the tiny washing machine. She could already taste those lemons in her mouth at the end of the day.

Carlo would be in the fields now laughing and smiling with the men and women who also worked there. Carlo was always bright and cheerful, not like his sister who’d grown increasingly tired and sour with the years.

Marzia carried a heavy sheet out to the balcony where she added it to the others that swayed and moved with the currents of the warm scented air. Looking down below, she spotted young Theresa and Paulo hiding and giggling near the corner of the market. They didn’t realize that they had an audience as they French kissed and ran their hands over each other in places that would have their mothers squawking.

She remembered when she’d been Theresa’s age, wearing the starched white shirts and pleated skirts of the Catholic school. Toni Marellli had been her boyfriend then. They’d thought that the same corner was private too.  After Carlo’s accident, Toni had gone away. Marzia stalked him sometimes on the internet. The photos of his receding hairline, beer buddies and of his two grown daughters always stayed with her for days. That would have been my life.

When the disaster struck—the one that had left the top half of her brother’s skull missing, Marzia knelt in the surgery waiting room saying prayers on her rosary and begging God to let Carlo live. God had granted that wish. The Doctors warned her that Carlo would probably not live past the age of twenty-five.

They were both in their sixties now. Carlo worked during harvest in the lemon and olive fields perched on the steep slopes of the coastal mountains.  In the early evenings, he sat at the edges of the walkway leading down to the Ligurian Sea. He smiled innocently at the tourists who regarded him with surprised pity. There was never a language barrier for Carlo. Turning his head so that they had a clear view of his injury, he motioned toward his hat lying near his feet. The loose change that he proudly poured into their kitchen table did help make ends meet, as did Mariza’s miniature sketches that she drew of seascapes and buildings in their tiny town. The sheets she washed were destined for tourist beds. At night, she sipped on Carlo’s share of the Limoncello that he received at the conclusion of the harvest season.

In her top dresser drawer was the rosary that she’d used that night. She hadn’t touched it since. If Carlo beat her to the grave, she planned to put it in with his ashes.

___________

Story Prompt: WriteOn weekend challenge: 500 words or less – “Window”

Inspiration: A trip to Manarola, Italy in Cinque Terra – art and photography by the author