It is dark on this street where our family house still stands. We live in shadow even when the sun pulls itself over the great sea wall to the east and into the sky above.
Electricity still runs down here in the Wetlands but it comes and goes, sometimes disappearing entirely. At night the streetlight between this house where I still live and hers throws a dim yellow splash onto the cracked pavement between our front stoops and porches — a spotlight waiting for its show.
Tonight I sit on my porch waiting for her to come out of her house. I sometimes think I won’t breathe until I see her. I’m Milton.
Half a block down the street to my left is the wall. It climbs 57 feet into the air from what they say used to be a wide beach with a boardwalk. At the wall’s base stands the second working streetlight, its halo glowing dully off the cold gray barrier to the ocean.
On the other side they say the waters climb halfway up the wall, higher depending on the storm or the moon. They say the wall will hold back that sea.
But they say a lot, a lot of words, spread a lot of their facts, broadcast their news, and give us their vision. Maybe that is because they own the words. They control their use. So, for them, talk is cheap. Because they are important cogs in the machine and must not be hindered in their performance. It is the law here. But when you have to pay to use words, like we the people do, you don’t have a lot to say out loud. Talk costs you. A lot. So, you keep quiet. You don’t have a lot to write down. Ain’t no lists, no to dos, no check the boxes. It all stays inside your head. Especially when you have no coin.
I am told that if you somehow get to the top of the wall, you’d see a thick, oily ocean extending forever and pushing relentlessly against the massive barrier. When the tsunamis hit, or the hurricanes, sometimes the water spews violently over the wall in the wild winds and onto those of us still clutching to the coasts, in the Wetlands. And yet the wall holds and stands over us. For now. We call it Canute’s Wall, after the old world king who admitted he could not control the incoming tides.
Most of the people have moved inland to the Highlands, what the old maps call the Midwest and the Great Plains. To places like Bismarck which is the largest inland burb, to St. Louis, which is close in size but declining because of the flooding and tornados there, to Kansas City, which will be the home of the New White House. The exodus flows to Sudbury in Old Canada which teems with the constant poor newly relocated from WordPay debtor prisons, and to Madison where freewriters have fled to escape WordPay. To write and express what they want. But not just to freewrite. They seek relief from the towering oceans and the constant storms, and the fear. To have some peace. It can get to you.
Tonight, like every night, you hear the deep thump of the water against the wall. The sound is like what you hear when you put your ear to someone’s chest, and demand quiet. It is in you, all around you, when you live this close to the wall. Thump. It’s above you and cascades over you, like the waters will some day. Thump. You feel the immensity of the water just feet away, on the other side of the wall. The water, black and thick on the other side, looming overhead. Thump.
There are no stars when I look up from my porch. No stars like the ones my great-grandfather wrote small poems about in the early 22<sup>nd</sup> century, poems that still fill paper pages in books that my grandmother, his daughter, hid in the walls of this house, and its ceilings and floors, when she built it with my father. I cannot leave this place, with the words that embrace me, with his legacy that stirs me. There is meaning in these walls for me, directions from long lives of word and song and play. So I stay here. In his place. Just across the street from her.
My grandmother told about my great-grandfather’s bright stars when I was little. I remember seeing them myself, gleaming alive in the sky. But when I look up now at night all I see is a cold aerial constellation of blinking satellites, high altitude balloons, solar stations, space beacons, all collecting and transmitting something. Many consider it a beautiful, nocturnal gift from the state when the canopy of lights is color-coordinated at state holidays and rallies to provide hypershows for the denizens below.
But these are not my great-grandfather’s stars. They are not holes in the heavens allowing spirits and souls to peak down at us, watch over us, but blinking devices that observe, count, collect. They are probes that I feel inside me, inside my head.
I hear the word drone whirring toward me in the misty night air. It comes into view, floating dutifully and slowly right down the middle of my street. It stops and hovers in front of my open porch. It blinks red at me as it reads my word and concept count, sucking in my brain’s storms and my heart’s muse that have spilled out onto page, image and speech, and then it rises to my rooftop three stories up before shooting over to the rooftops of the other known occupied houses registered in the neighborhood. The device probes and grabs electronically for digital, hand-written or audible-recorded content, measuring the number of perceptible words and syllables and related concept data, and sends a summary of its analysis to the Heimdall System. Heimdall, of course, accounts for all data transiting, stored or generated by any Omninet system or device. It memorializes utterances above the softest whisper. It can pick up print so faint or so small the human eye cannot make it clear. Heimdall, to no one’s surprise, takes its name from the all-hearing, all-seeing Norse god watchman who heard the grass grow and who could see for hundreds of miles.
The System ultimately calculates and debits a WordPay fee from an annually prepaid household Content Usage Account. The Account is maintained by the state for the content corporations. The deducted Content Usage Fee is based not only on the raw count of spoken, written, digitized and imaged words but also the scope of your influence. So, the Fee algorithms factor in the number of voice and data interactions possible for each payer given their unique geography, family tree size, social network contacts, the number of virtual worlds frequented, the average active population of these worlds, the nature of the virtual roles filled, and also your education and physical or digital transportation events expanding your influence.
To measure articulated concepts, the Fee actually calculates the complexity of the proposition you put forth. To get there the Fee counts the number of words used to articulate the concept but also the number of assumptions, sub-propositions and conclusions underlying the concept. The Fee accounts for the number of hits the concept gets and whether the state recognizes the concept on its Notable Notion site (a separate fee is applied for this achievement). You get hit with a Controversy Fee for concepts that are disliked or rejected by more than 15% of the audience in a given day, including Offensive Words of any kind. English, Spanish, Chinese and Hindi-based words and concepts carry slightly higher markups depending on your geo-zone. Lastly, but you never know, there is an overall incentive discount in this WordPay system if you pass certain word count thresholds (they actually want you to use most words, as long as you pay), but a value-added tax applies to Core Words (those fundamental to expression).
The overall WordPay fee will kill you, especially at peak times. To put it simply, you open your mouth, you pay. You whisper of your undying love, you pay. You moan about your loneliness, your pain, your abandonment or your emptiness, you pay. And when you pray aloud for salvation, relief or your sudden and painless demise, you pay. Camus’ publisher owns existential angst so don’t even think of despair unless you got coin. And now his intellectual property collective churns out endless novels serializing the benign indifference of the universe. Shakespeare’s distributor owns story lines based on about 45% of human foible and frailty (second only to the huge Greek Philosophers’ Syndicate), so don’t think of publishing your little tale of jealousy gone ugly. It’s derivative, copyright speaking, and costly. The Beatles’ estates own roughly 37 percent of the hooks for any love song you want to sing so check carefully before you bee bop under that streetlight on the corner. Same thing about what a midnight moon overhead means to you. The Crooners, their current LLC that is, owns all the variations on that theme. Don’t even think about that midnight serenade beneath your sweetie’s window.
And Heimdall doesn’t stop at words and concepts. Special system and method patent royalties are collected for common human acts and rituals like smiling like the Mona Lisa, kissing like any of the past MTV Best Kiss in a Movie or TV Show winners, moonwalking like that Michael Jackson and walking jauntily like Mickey Mouse used to. Or, for that matter, giving the finger using the Rajasthan Snake Charmer method (one hand holds traditional pungi flute to lips which you play making mouth sounds while slowly elevating the middle finger of your other hand, as if it were a snake responding to your flute). You pay anytime you sing whining long, low or loud about love or life like Adele, and, worst of all, when you sob uncontrollably over your lost soul like that old faith-healer Tammy Faye Bakker on the Praise The Lord Club with her mascara running off her chin like a melting icecap.
It’s all been said before. It’s all been done before. It’s all been danced, all been sung, all been acted and gesticulated, all been graphic-noveled, re-imagined, serialized, prequeled, sequeled and/or syndicated before. And it’s all been copyrighted, trademarked, patented or trade secreted. It’s all owned. And the Heimdall System’s algorithm counts up what you owe when you use it.
So you keep words and concepts inside your head. You keep flat, emotionless, and plain. Only if you’re rich with coin can you then afford your meltdowns, your pontifications, your happy feet, your posts and chats and pics, your memories recalled and passed on. If you are poor? Well, then you can have nothing to say or show. If you are contentious or extreme? Choose carefully your moment of rant because you won’t be able to afford the associated special sky-high Controversy VAT but once or twice a year. So keep it within. Keep it quiet. Follow the norm. Slow down.
There used to be more drones overhead. Some for security, some for monitoring movement. Most delivered packages, meds, liquor and hot food. And some measured the flooding and surges that come from time to time from the unplugged holes or the unexplained ground swells. All the drones back when I was a child created a buzzing like the 17-year cicadas I read about upstairs in my attic and that some travelers say still come and go in the drier Highlands, an insistent buzzing that rode atop the pounding heartbeat of the sea against Canute’s Wall.
The drones could lull me to sleep at night back then, when I was a boy, until the day I learned what they saw and counted. I developed anxieties that continue to this day, fearing they search inside my head and watch and count my dreams. The content corporations, I know, still work on that, an elusive revenue stream from so-called “non-perceptible” expression like dream and thought content. It’s got limitless upside and returns they say. But the state had to cut back on drone outlays to pay for all the urban towers going up in the Highlands, for the unexpected forced relocation costs for moving dozens of towns of people to the Highlands as the oceans rise, for the aerial constellation, for the wall and it’s constant upkeep. Etc., etc. All in a time when WordPay collected less as expression and controversy waned, unlike the seas. During this time as well, active WordPay avoidance prompted freewriters in state-controlled regions to begin their content burial grounds, replacing the ashes and bones in the old caskets in the cemeteries with books, papers and drives, with real words, real song, real expression. Converting the dry ashes of the dead into living, breathing words and thought.
All we have here in the less populated, indeed emptying, Wetlands, is the aging Lemmadrone series of sky counters and a more-or-less daily delivery drone. Still, our own Lemmadrone comes each night, red eye blinking down the street, lingering registered house by registered house, assigned collectively to those of us who still hang on here. Calculating usage fees for the content companies. Before the cutbacks, they talked for a while of rolling out a successor to the Lemmadrone, the Morphemadrone, which would collect down to the root and the syllable of an expressed word. That got delayed too, when they had to cut back the drone levels, and I heard legal issues still plague its rollout.
Her door opens across the way. I hear its click and its creaks in the night. It begins.