Short Stories

The Castaways

By David Burn

“You don’t have enough points to pass through.”

Sammy pulls his canvas sleeve down and snaps it closed at the wrist. His face is still, like a pond at daybreak. Eventually, his lips part and a timid voice ripples on the air. “I’ve been bio hacked. I’m a victim of identity crime. It’s all noted in my file.”

“I won’t have my Level VI clearance until next year. All I can see are the total number of points and unfortunately, it says ‘minus 24.’”

Sammy offers, “I have fresh eggs. You can make an omelet.”

The sentry says, “Look, if I took a bribe and let you pass through this gate, my hunger would be for something grander than an egg dish.”

Sammy suggests, “I can bring you two live chickens.”

“I’m sorry, please move aside. Your fellow citizens are waiting patiently.”

With no points in his account, Sammy knew he’d need to eat the eggs himself and the chickens too. “No points” is a death sentence on The Outside. Sammy had read about the old ways. He knew his forefathers had tendered cash for items, but the monetary system crashed back in 2020. Now, with the insertion of a chip reader at birth, every American’s “citizen’s account” is loaded with the promise of a lifetime of credits.

Sammy smiles at the sentry. He turns to take his leave. Biohacking has ruined his life, but it’s no reason to be rude. He knows there is no benefit to dwelling in the past—you either get more points loaded to your bioreader or you’re forever cast out.

“Okay, good day to you.”

The long line of citizens behind him approach the sentry with their right sleeves rolled up. The sentry’s hand-held reader scans each citizen’s point total and then draws a drop of blood in a two-step authentication process. The transfer of data and blood typically takes six seconds per person, which keeps the line moving. A citizen near Sammy offers to load 10 points to his bioreader for the fresh eggs. “Thank you, but I need 24 points just to reach zero. I plan to find a frying pan,” says Sammy.

Before the biohacking occurrence, Sammy lived a life of relative comfort. The Co-Op promptly loaded a fresh 1000 points to his account on the first day of each month in return for his services as head groundskeeper and horticulturist. He was also assigned a living space in The Complex. But all of that is gone now. With no points, you can’t pass through the gates set up around The Community.

Two weeks ago, Sammy was pruning pear trees in the orchard, eating goat cheese on flatbreads and sipping Viognier from his rucksack. Since losing his clearance, he hasn’t been home, or to work. Now he lives by the river in a camp of outcasts. His new friends are expert at bow hunting and they’re reportedly great at fishing too, except the river is trickling, not running, a fact that makes the July heat all the tougher to endure.

Back at the camp, Sammy cracks his eggs and scrambles them with fresh dandelions that he collects on his walks. There’s no wine on the outside, and very little water. He eats in silence. A lonely crow bellows from a fir tree in the distance.

The other outcasts are mostly here because they committed violent crimes on the inside. Sammy is the victim of a crime, but you can’t be a victim on the outside and expect to survive for long. No. It’s Sammy’s time to perpetrate a crime and transfer whatever ill-begotten points he can acquire and get back inside.

The Co-Op sends armored units into The Territory to dump trash, mine for copper, and hunt for wild game. He will organize the outcasts and plan a surprise attack.

Sammy wishes he had salt for the eggs, and he wonders about his championship roses. Who is watering the Pink Promises? With too little or too much water, his prized flowers will wilt. Sammy is precise with plants.

He sketches a formula in the wet sand. Math calms him.

“I will get by,” he encourages. “I will survive.”

II

It’s not safe to doze off when you’re unguarded on the outside. You could be robbed, or worse. Sammy has no reason to believe the rumors, but the word is cannibals roam The Outer Realms, where food is scarce.

Before the collapse, Sammy lived with his brother and mother on a ranch 40 miles outside of Lubbock. He was also a focused over-achiever in the classroom. He graduated magna cum laude from Texas Tech with a degree in Plant and Soil Science at the age of 21. He then started working for the state, which moved him to Austin, where Sammy joined a funk band that played Willie Nelson covers in dive bars.

Back then, when cash was king, a healthy steer would sell at auction for $800 or more. After the collapse, herds of cattle died of hunger all over the West. Rivers ran dry and ranchers lost everything to the banks. Turns out the geniuses at the banks had never fed cattle before.

Sammy is hungry enough to eat a cow. He walks toward wisps of smoke from a campfire downriver. When he arrives, he sees two long-bearded men warming themselves by the flames. They have a pot of coffee boiling on the coals. “Gentlemen, I have eggs that we can cook. How about some coffee?”

“Do you know how hard it is to get coffee on The Outside, young man?”

“No, I am sorry to say I do not,” Sammy says.

“Don’t say that crap. Give me your cup, sir. My name is Saint John.”

Sammy hands Saint John his cup, which he dug up, along with a purple raincoat, in a trash pit of cans and concrete. The pit is ruled by rude raccoons, who do not appreciate the human competition.

“My friend here took a vow of silence 22 moons ago after he was cast out. His name is Kin, and from what I have pieced together he was a scientist of some sort. Possibly a brain surgeon.”

Sammy has a good group of friends back inside the Co-Op. He wasn’t allowed to date, but he loves kids and cats and he was always giving his friends fresh flowers that he had just thinned from The Magistrate’s garden.

“Thank you, the coffee is terrific. Reminds me of old times.”

Saint John says, “I don’t want to pry, but who are you, and why are you out here among us scavengers and survivors?”

“My name is Sammy. I was biohacked and I lost all my points.” Sammy holds his arm out to the men like they might care to inspect the scene of the crime.

Saint John rolls up his sleeve and shows Sammy a clump of scar tissue on his forearm. “I yanked their software. Early versions were full of bugs. Drove me mad.”

Sammy had read about men like Saint John. People who grew up with no embedded software and then were asked to accommodate themselves to it. Back then when the tech was introduced, it was sold to the public as a helpful tool and a convenience. “Better Living Through Identity Tracking” the ads read.

III

The weeks on The Outside drag on and Sammy can find no one among his fellow castaways who is willing to help him launch a surprise attack at the trash heaps.

Saint John says the human trashmen are heavily armed and their wastebots are equipped with helmet cams that auto-detect any bioreader within 100 feet of them, which means even if they don’t see you coming, their sensors will.

Saint John, who has no software in his arm to scan, also asks Sammy why anyone would want to go back to The Co-Op and live out a vapid existence meant to please no one but The Commissioners.

Sammy wants to go home to his roses, and his assigned room in The Compound. There is no leisure time on The Outside, and no satisfaction in one’s work either. There is hunting and gathering, and standing around the fire, and that is all.

Saint John says to stop worrying so much and that jackrabbit is an acquired taste. Sammy loves fresh fish, which is not in season. Sammy is now subsisting mostly on roots with a smattering of edible flowers.

Sammy has been digging for food scraps in the trash heaps—half-eaten loaves of bread with just a touch of mold, overripe avocados, and this morning he located an unopened can of peaches. The ‘coons looked on with noticeable disdain at his good fortune, but Sammy didn’t notice. Peaches are currency, and Sammy needs a gun.

To go undetected and launch his attack, Sammy needs to remove his bioreader, as Saint John has done. Sammy appeals to the silent scientist, Kin, Saint John’s constant companion. Kin waves him off.

Sammy sits by the campfire. He places his blade on a hot rock next to the fire to sterilize it. After 10 minutes, he picks it up suddenly and slices open the underpart of his forearm. His blood starts to run. He looks at the blood like it’s running from another man’s arm. He faints forward into the fire.

Kin and Saint John have seen dozens of castaways lose their minds. Life on The Outside doesn’t suit people from the Co-Op. They can’t fathom the hardships, much less navigate them.

Believing that it’s not Sammy’s time, Kin lays him out on his back next to the fire. He examines the incision and determines that it’s a clean cut. Kin removes Sammy’s bioreader in a swift process of extraction aided by a magnet that Kin magically produces from his pants pocket. He then slowly sews Sammy’s arm back together.

Saint John says to Kin, “When I had mine removed by an oral surgeon, it took an hour. I guess science continues to advance, even when civilization does not.”

IV

Before the collapse, and before the formation of the Co-Op, Kin was a commercial fisherman working out of Jefferson Parish in coastal Louisiana. He was the last of his kind. Kin saw The Gulf change from a paradise to an uninhabitable wasteland. His livelihood taken from him and everyone he knew as a consequence.

It happened slowly at first, but by 2020 when the monetary system collapsed the toxicity levels in the Gulf were through the roof. The scientists at Louisiana Tech said the Gulf shrimp and other sea creatures were existing on a steady diet of discarded plastic from upstream manufacturers.

Sammy wakes up startled. He moans in pain. Saint John and Kin kneel by his side and Saint John says, “Count your lucky stars friend, Kin just removed your bioreader and stitched you up, real pro-like. You’re going to live the life of a free man now.”

Sammy looks up at the steely-eyed old men and the star-filled sky above them. He feels at peace. Saint John says, “You really can’t go back to the Co-Op now. With no bioreader, you’re no good to anyone but yourself and your friends on The Outside.”

Sammy dozes off. In the morning, Sammy wakes and last night’s citizen’s operation seems like a dream. His swollen and stitched arm says otherwise.

When Kin and Saint John stir and the coffee is on the coals, Sammy says, “If I choose to stay here on The Outside, I’d like to capture a wastebot and reprogram it to perform some basic duties for us.”

Saint John says he loves the idea, but programming is above his pay grade. “I thought you were a flowers guy,” he speculates.

“I studied soil composition—the very essence of life. Hacking was just a hobby then,” says Sammy.

During the evening hours, with a slight breeze from the north helping to keep him cool, Sammy digs a trench in the trash heap. He immerses his body in the den. It’s not a pleasant place to be, but it is private. No one sees Sammy or knows his whereabouts.

He sleeps soundly insulated as he is on trash. Just before dawn, he wakes and hears the distant approach of the Co-Op’s waste patrol. The wastebots and their human controllers are coming to add more rubbish to the ever-growing mounds.

All Sammy wants is a single wastebot to go missing. That’s not too much to ask. Sammy doesn’t know who hacked his bioreader or why. He only knows how it feels. “I have sacrificed for the good of all and the future of the Co-Op. I did everything I was asked to do. I was a model citizen,” Sammy—covered head to toe in trash—quietly mumbles to himself.

At daybreak, Sammy sneaks up behind an unsuspecting wastebot and tosses an oily blanket over its head part, which makes the machine furious. It spins and flails its robot arms, before losing its robot balance and falling to the ground. Sammy quickly runs a rope around the ‘bot and begins to cover it up with thick layers of fresh trash.

He moves fast in the early morning light, and when the wastebot is six feet down, he burrows back in, so the drones can’t get an eye on him or the captured ‘bot.

Sammy is patient today. He waits for the sentry ‘bots to circle, and they do, but they won’t dig. It’s not in their software to dig. Their human operators in the waste tractors will also not handle the trash directly in any way. It’s not safe, they say.

Sammy is safe as long as they can’t see him or scan him. The wastebots know they lost a ‘bot, but compassion and teamwork are also not programmed. The robots don’t know what they don’t know. They search perfunctorily but quickly move on to other more utilitarian tasks.

By evening, Sammy has his new personal assistant back at camp. Kin and Saint John are impressed with Sammy’s gumption, ingenuity, and follow-through.

“The reprogramming starts tomorrow, gentlemen. You might be surprised what this model of ‘bot is capable of.”

Saint John says, “Sammy, what’s that look in your eye?”

“That, my friend, is the twinkle of hope.”

“Turn it off. It’s blinding,” complains Saint John.

V

When he was at Texas Tech, the agriculture experts were pushing mechanization and talking about “feeding the world.” Consequently, Sammy learned basic robotics.

Back then, he could make a robot of this make and model do what he asked, but that was all inside of a lab. This is the field and Sammy has no proper tools to help him turn his new wastebot into a potent weapon capable of returning him to his rightful place in The Community.

On this first night with the newly acquired ‘bot, Sammy he tosses and turns under the cold shining stars. He longs for his bed and down pillows. No one has a pillow on The Outside and everyone on The Outside needs one.

Sammy runs his forefinger along the scar on his exposed forearm. He knows that Saint John is right, there’s no going back. Not now. Even if he did make it back, the evidence of his recently removed bioreader would lead to him being cast out again. The punishment for removing a bioreader, either your own or someone else’s, is banishment.

In the morning, Saint John gets the fire going and the coffee brewing. Sammy has the wastebot’s detached hard drive in his hands. The ‘bot itself lays listless on the ground. Saint John asks how the reprogramming is going.

“I need to completely replace the main circuit board, and that does seem like a reach at the moment,” Sammy admits.

Saint John says, “I mean how is your reprogramming going?”

Sammy looks at his dirty hands and the piece of technology that he holds. He does not answer. When the coffee is ready, he takes a hot sip and says, “My roses are everything to me.”

Saint John never felt that way about the daily grind. He loved the wide-open freedom of being out in the Gulf and the natural beauty, but the labor and isolation were always a struggle. He was a productive fisherman, but that’s all it was to him. A way to survive.

Sammy’s daddy wasn’t cut out for ranch life. After the divorce, he became an insurance salesman in town and married a widower with three kids. His new family and new life in town were fine and dandy with Sammy’s mom. Like her father and grandfather who turned the ranch into a profitable enterprise, his mom belonged to the country and there was a hard-headedness in her genes that both her sons inherited.

Sammy finishes his coffee and cleans his mug with a rag. He bids his friends a good day and heads back to the dump to rummage for more makeshift tools.

After a few hours of digging, he emerges triumphant with a cache of electronics, including two iPhones and a Samsung tablet. If only he had a soldering gun.

Sammy gleefully returns to camp but Saint John and Kin and gone. There is no camp to speak of now. Only the wastebot is left to greet him and he does not greet Sammy because the ‘bot’s detached hard drive sits open-faced on a rock.

Sammy puzzles at the scene. Why would they up and leave like this? Are they coming back? Did someone or something run them off?

Sammy gathers firewood. He hears the distant sound of aircraft. All commercial air travel was suspended after the collapse. There are no private pilots or private planes today. Everyone works for, and everything belongs to The Community.

The plane approaches. It’s flying low to the ground. Sammy puts his head down in the brush, nevertheless, he is spotted. A stream of yellow dust drops from the airplane. The air scout marks its find.

Ten minutes later, a helicopter descends on the camp, and Sammy is placed under arrest. The officers from the Co-Op load him into the air rescue vehicle and they’re gone like a hawk with a baby rabbit in its talons.

Sammy is taken directly to the hospital for a full battery of tests, a fresh round of vaccines, and to get his new bioreader implanted.

He’s not in any kind of legal trouble.

“The Magistrate’s roses are dead and dying,” says the doctor. “That’s why you’re here. You know you’re a very lucky man.”

“I am?”

“You are.”

“I made friends on The Outside.”

“You have friends here, people and Pink Promises who can’t wait to see you again.”

More Short Stories by David Burn

“Letter to Frankie” (currently out for review)

“Welcome to Magic Valley” (currently out for review)

“Club Taco” (currently out for review)

“Big Plans” (currently out for review)