Saturday, April 4, 2020

"Shift"

“COVID-19 was the breaking point,” said the professor. “Our planet experienced a-political allyship for the first time. Through a strict policy of isolation, scientists and medical professionals around the world were able to quell and eventually cure the disease. There were dark and severe consequences during that first modern Pandemic for the few humans who chose to rebel, and compliance was made all but universal after just a few public executions in every country. Self-quarantine orders were implemented globally during every vital outbreak that followed for three hundred years with increasing effectiveness until the Great Shift of 2324 when Earth was declared free of biological disease.” The professor moved through the lecture hall as she spoke, trying to engage in a physical way with every student, however briefly. A touch on the arm, a caress of the hair. She also carried a laser-zapper with her, in case she found someone who dared fall asleep during her lecture, but she rarely had to use it. Young people were curious about history, as a rule, and morbidly fascinated by anyone who had spent time alone. “When plagues and poxes had been extinguished, Society finally took a deep breath of their shared air — but rejoining the masses was not a relief to most. After generations of prolonged periodic isolation, the only places that people felt comfortable in the company of others were grocery stores. The Fusionists began there, holding meetings in the produce section, resurrecting the ancient meaning of the word fusion: to merge ‘diverse, distinct or separate elements into a unified whole,’ a definition discovered by reading a paper dictionary, which had been preserved in an archive of such manuscripts. The Fusionists sought to change the social landscape of the planet by reversing course on the isolation reforms that had been used during pandemic eras. Laws that were once made to keep us apart were nullified, and new campaigns for intimacy were begun.” The class became noticeably more comfortable as the lesson approached their own experience. Though the study of history was important and interesting, it was unsettling for them to think of a time before Fusion. For this reason, many students of history opted to study the deep past, when people lived in one-room dwellings and often shared a family bed. Poverty was much more familiar to them than solitude. The professor glanced at the timekeeper, who signalled for her to wrap things up. “When we return tomorrow, we are going to begin an investigation of teamless-writing, a practice which resulted in a great number of independently published books. Perhaps you have encountered one or two of these in your grandparents’ collections, but I will also bring a few examples with me from the university archives. These books were private endeavours, often written in a state of completely voluntary seclusion. Reading them takes an effort as they can be terribly contemplative and rambling at times, but they are excellent resources for studying the world as it was imagined in the millennia before Fusion. Until then, enjoy each other’s company.” Dismissed, the lecture hall emptied onto the street. Every classroom in the university — almost every room in every building, in fact — had an outdoor exit with a path that led down to the road. Many cites had been radically redesigned with Fusion in mind, and the street was now several meters lower than it had once been, in order to accommodate the daily surge of people that gathered for the parade. Terraced sidewalks running parallel to the parade route ensured that everyone had room to spare, though nobody considered it polite to leave much space between souls in such a setting. Everyone left the school arm in arm, or hand in hand and joined in long chains with perfect strangers as they approached the road. The parade was mandatory, and the route was relatively short so there was always someone new to meet. The professor linked up with a secretary from a local high school that she knew well, and a firefighter she’d never seen before in her life. The students mingled with labourers and engineers from a nearby construction site. Respected elders stood beside calloused criminals; scientists and nursing mothers chatted with scampering toddlers underfoot. Everyone came outside to celebrate for an hour every afternoon, rain or shine. In the early days of Fusion, there had been laws governing maximum distances between people in public spaces. Shopping hours were reduced as to crowd people together for optimum density. Eventually, physical barriers were removed in all sorts of places, from private booths in restaurants to the walls in bathroom stalls. Loneliness was declared the final pandemic, and Society was determined to cure it by the complete elimination of alone-ness. Factories stopped making “single” mattresses years ago and encouraged the popularity of platonic bedfellows; bachelor apartments were remodelled as housing for broadly defined families. Hospitals, now largely defunct, were converted into artist colonies and community centres. People were relocated from distant parts and wild spaces and placed in towns or cities as often as possible. Now no one was ever alone. And it had worked, hadn’t it? With sacrifices, to be sure — but a reduction of rest and reasoning were trifling matters in the big picture. One sleepless night, one restless writer, one or two mental breakdowns or minor catastrophes among the intelligentsia. Change always has a cost, of course. Even when it’s change for the better.

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