Friday, October 26, 2012

"The Forever Contract" by Avery Sawyer (Novella)

Genre:  Young Adult Dystopian

Type of Short Story:  Novella

Summary:  In the very near future, the country is plunged into drought and unrest. Scare resources and constant heat are making life completely miserable. Casey doesn't think she can stand slugging back another gel pack or working one more shift at the wells. Fortunately, there's a solution: anyone over the age of seventeen can sign the Forever Contract and enter a utopian paradise. While people's minds take a permanent vacation, their bodies get warehoused and hooked up to a complex array of sensors and feeding tubes. As Casey's brother says, "You upload your consciousness to the system and you're free to live as long as you want, however you want. No more pain, no more heat, no more awful dust, no more work. Just pure thought. It's what our species has always been meant for. Suffering is for philosophers. Not for me."

Casey's ready to sign--a permanent vacation is just what she needs. There's only one problem: her boyfriend James doesn't trust it.

Told from his and her perspectives, The Forever Contract is a 17,000 word (60 page) novella suitable for readers in grade 8 and above.

Would you sign the contract?


All anyone ever talked about these days was going into the system. Most of us turned seventeen this year, and you couldn’t go in until your seventeenth birthday.

“But what will it feel like?” we asked each other in class, when we were supposed to be writing lab reports or graphing equations. “What if it hurts?”

“It doesn’t hurt,” the decided ones said. “My best friend Shana went in last month and I chat with her every night. She says it’s amazing—you get to do whatever you want.”

“That does sound pretty decent,” the doubtful replied, throwing back a gel pack. We all had gel packs for lunch; water was scarce and the gel was supposed to rehydrate you even though it never felt like it did.

There had been a drought and record high temperatures all over the country as long as anyone could remember. We lived with the constant whirr of weak air-conditioners and uncertainty in our small prairie town. A long time ago, the town boomed thanks to large deposits of natural gas, but that was all over now. Most people had left, but a few thousand hunkered down and built concrete block houses. It wasn’t quite as hot in the summer here as it was farther south, so we figured it could be worse. No one had seen green grass in years; everything was dirt and dust and dead trees. It was actually illegal to plant your own garden because everyone knew you’d try to water it in the middle of the night when no one was looking. I kept planning to cut my longish brown hair into a pixie to make one-minute showers easier to manage, but I just couldn’t do it.

My brother Benjamin had gone in a year ago. Our parents were upset—they didn’t believe it was a good idea, because once you went in, you couldn’t come back out. “But I’ll never be able to give you a hug again,” my mother had wailed. “It’s not normal.”

“We’ll talk every day on screen,” Ben had replied. “And you can join me any time and give me a hug inside.”

“I doubt two avatars hugging really feel anything,” Mom had said ruefully. “It’s all made up. A fake world, a theme park, a game.”

“No, it’s not, Mom,” Ben had insisted. “It’s whatever you want it to be. Don’t you ever get tired of being thirsty? Of feeling pain?” He knew she’d suffered from arthritis for years. He wanted to sell us all on the idea, on the plan, but I knew my parents would never go in without me, and I wasn’t old enough then.

“Please don’t do it. I don’t trust it,” she’d begged.

“The system isn’t some monolithic thing, you know,” he’d tried to explain. “It’s the first true democracy. You upload your consciousness to the forever system and you’re free to live as long as you want, however you want. No more pain, no more heat, no more awful dust, no more work. Just pure thought. It’s what our species has always been meant for. Suffering is for philosophers. Not for me.”

“You’re free to live and play as long as the system has power,” our father corrected him. “What happens if the grid goes down?”

“Won’t happen, Dad. Why are you so negative?”

Our parents were still part of the faction who believed it would get better in the nuts-and-bolts world. That the rain would come back, that the changes we were seeing around the globe were temporary. They were different than most parents in our town. Most parents felt that anything was better than life as we all knew it. As a result, there were almost no young adults around anymore. It seemed like everyone seventeen or older had gone in. You almost never saw a twenty-something at the supply store or the school. Older people could go in if they wanted to, but they were more reluctant. They weren’t completely comfortable with the technology—they wanted to give it a few more years.

Things had gotten worse gradually. My mom talked about citrus all the time. That’s the thing she missed, she said. Grapefruit. A slice of lime in soda water. We couldn’t get citrus fruit anymore, and I couldn’t even remember what it had tasted like. She said I’d loved oranges as a toddler. We were the lucky ones, though. A lot of families didn’t have enough to eat. Food was very expensive, so meals were skipped. People ate rice and beans. It was awful. We at least had meat once or twice a week.

In any case, Ben had signed the Forever Contract and went in, and like my mom said, we couldn’t hug him anymore. His avatar looked like him, only better somehow. His hair seemed thicker onscreen; his arms and body leaner and more muscular. I wanted to ask him if he’d done it with anyone in there, but I couldn’t. I was his sister, and little sisters didn’t ask big brothers that sort of thing. Besides, I could read about it anywhere. Every report coming out of the system said sex inside was amazing. Indescribable. Much better than it could ever be in real life—with no worries about pregnancy or diseases. The system didn’t have babies, which sounded perfectly fine to me.

Still, I wasn’t sure. My boyfriend James was a really good kisser and I couldn’t imagine doing anything that would prevent me from being in his arms. When his lips touched that spot on my neck, right below my ear, I felt more alive than I ever had. How could immortality and nice muscles compete with that?

Besides, James wasn’t going.

He said it was a crock, the whole thing. I never let him get very far with his argument because I didn’t want to think about what it meant for Ben, but James believed the system was a completely flawed corporate-government program designed to prevent even worse food and water shortages. He believed that those who uploaded their consciousness in exchange for life as avatars in utopia had essentially agreed to commit suicide.

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