The alarm sounded. Someone had breached the perimeter. Bob sighed as he set down his coffee. An entire shift had almost passed without incident, its remaining moments to be spent enjoying undemanding holographic entertainment before Harry came in to take over. Now flashing lights and an automated female voice, which Bob referred to as Daphne, informed him his services were required.
The display desk kicked in, producing a virtual image of the relevant sector. A pair of small yellow figures moved through it, Daphne confirming there were two interlopers. Most likely teenagers, Bob thought. The young enjoying the rush of defying authority in the pursuit of freedom. He'd have to retrieve them, hopefully before they came into contact with the enemy.
Bob cursed the interlopers but also empathized. He'd been guilty of such transgressions in his own youth. He and Chloe, two young lovers high on the excitement of rebellion and each other, enthralled by tales of the outside world.
'The Real World'.
He remembered all too well the philosophy behind this rebellion.
People lived quite happily outside once upon a time, how dangerous could it be?
Humanity had become over cautious; scared of the very world from which it had evolved. The urge to explore was only natural. To see, hear, smell and touch it all first hand. 3D imaging and synthesized sensory perception was all very well but the true kick lay in experiencing the real thing.
Fun, until Chloe succumbed to the enemy.
These two current interlopers were doubtless unhindered by such bad memories. Bob had grown to know better. It only took one slip. The enemy could enter undetected in any number of ways and once there it mercilessly destroyed from within, getting to work before you even knew it was there.
The invisible killer.
Bob took his portable tracker and paired it with the security main frame. With it he would locate the interlopers before arresting and bringing them back to the city. It wasn't just their well being he had to take into consideration. Once returned to the city limits the pair would be put in quarantine, ensuring any potential infestation didn't find its way into the population.
Daphne announced two perimeter officers would meet Bob at the air lock to aid in his pursuit. It would've been easy to blame perimeter officers for allowing the breach in the first place but that would've been unfair. There were always gaps to exploit if you were determined and smart enough. That had been the case with Bob and Chloe. They'd slipped out repeatedly, authorities oblivious to their actions until Chloe's symptoms emerged.
Beaching the perimeter was easier back then. In the days before the grid monitored all movement outside the city within a two-mile radius. Once locked in it could then use satellite to track a person over further distances. It was information from the satellite that was being piped into Bob's hand held tracker now.
The blame for lax security lay with weak willed liberals holding so much sway within the corridors of power. 'Electrified fences were inhuman' they said. Total surveillance around the perimeter risked breaching privacy laws. Total lock down implied imprisonment of the innocent, thus infringing human rights.
What about human survival??
The liberals believed fear of the enemy beyond the perimeter would keep the sane and rational within, but the welfare of the population was far too important to entrust with assumption and wishful thinking. Besides, this belief assumed the interloper to be of sound mind, a condition that didn't always apply to teenagers. The young often didn't know better.
He and Chloe hadn't known better.
He'd loved Chloe, or at least believed he did. He fell for her mischievous eyes and seductive smile. He remembered how her laugh warmed his heart. How her essence weakened him yet made him feel he could take on the world. He would have done so gladly in her name.
That's how he chose to remember her. Not how she was at the end. Pale, in agony, body ravished by the enemy, living out her final moments isolated behind a pain of glass.
Bob took a safety suit from the locker. Mandatory regulation. He tested the respirator as Daphne informed him of conditions out in The Real World. It was a late summer afternoon. Clear skies, Low humidity, mild breeze. Bob had enjoyed such days with Chloe. Once experienced the sensation stayed with you forever. Illogical, but part of him longed to return to the real world unencumbered by safety suit. The freedom of the open, the freshness of the air.
The city's air always seemed so dry. It's environment so sterile.
He and Chloe's final excursion into The Real World had seemed particularly special at the time. It hurt him how things could turn so tragic so quickly.
Chloe had learnt the location of a nearby lake where people once swam regularly. Naturally they sought it out. Once there, Chloe was keen to dive in. Suddenly apprehensive, Bob initially resisted. She mocked him as she shed her clothes, claiming he was simply afraid of old wives tales spun by people who were afraid to live. She easily seduced him into the water.
It was a simple scratch, really more a graze on her leg sustained as they frolicked on the lake's edge. She paid it little mind, believing a spit and rub would prevent infection. Her wound covered once she'd re-clothed, they returned home.
The enemy had found it's way in.
At first the wound became irritable, then inflamed. She went to see a doctor in confidence only for the doctor to raise the alarm. She and her family were immediately quarantined; the family released once proven clear of similar symptoms. Bob recalled his fear; terrified infection had entered his own body, waiting to take effect.
Chloe's condition grew worse. Disease had entered her system, relentlessly eating away through her cells. Marks began to appear on her now pale skin. Lumps, blotches, Chloe's beauty fading, glow evaporating from her person.
Once upon a time her body would of fought off such infections. In more extreme cases medicines would have aided her immunes system's fight. The medicines however caused a problem. They upset a natural balance. The enemy became stronger, more aggressive. Doctors responded with more powerful medicines but they were entering an arms race they had no chance of winning.
The enemy was alive and at its most basic level life's purpose is to keep living. From generation to generation life becomes better at doing this. It becomes stronger, smarter, more efficient, anything to continue it's species' survival. The enemy had been surviving for longer than humans had even existed. People didn't fully appreciate how good the enemy was at surviving. There's no plan. It didn't think about it, it had no brain with which to think. It just did.
Or perhaps there was intelligence on a level not understood. A thought best left to the philosophers in Bob's opinion.
Either way it didn't matter. The results remained the same. Chloe's health inevitably deteriorated. She died three weeks later.
Chloe's death changed Bob forever. The knowledge of his lucky escape, the thought of how close he must have come to infection, disturbed him. Gave him nightmares.
There but for the grace of God!
He would never breach the perimeter without full protection again!
Bacteria had killed Chloe, one of two forms of enemy. The other form of enemy, the more feared form, was the virus. Bacteria killed its victim but didn't easily pass from person to person. If the interlopers picked up bacteria it was only their own lives in danger. Viruses however were contagious. If an interloper brought one back undetected the effects could be devastating. No major virus threat had entered the population since the measles out break had killed over two hundred people several years earlier. Since then nothing, but the threat still remained, hiding out in The Real World, hanging in the air or laying on any untreated surface, waiting for an opportunity to get in.
And yet for all its dangers The Real World remained so beautiful.
Bob paused before heading for the air lock. In a way he felt blessed to have the job he had. He was one of very few people who ventured outside legally. A privilege but a bittersweet one. From within his protective gear The Real World still seemed frustratingly distant. It was all around him yet he couldn't touch or appreciate it as he had done years before. He longed to again feel the sun on his face, the air breathing on his skin.
It was tempting to discard the suit. Against regulations but what was the worst the authorities could do? Suitless, Bob could actually move more freely, do the job more efficiently. Chances of him succumbing to the enemy were slim and the authorities could always put him in quarantine for a few days on his return, just to stay on the safe side.
No. Why take the risk? The layer of protection was a sensible precaution. Bob's risk taking days were behind him now. Hormones didn't dictate as they once did.
Plus he'd loose his job and he took pride in the importance of his duties. He helped keep the enemy at bay, saved naive rebels from themselves.Bob stepped out with safety suit intact, choosing living over feeling alive.