The Air of Protest

by Phillip Pettit


Alfred called the small group to order by banging his fist against a stack of wooden packing crates. Dust puffed outwards on each impact and was caught in sunlight that streamed through dirty windows.

He tilted his chin back as if to launch a booming volley of words to a large crowd, but the voice that issued forth was more akin to that of a talking parrot than that of a firebrand crowd-pleaser. He had an audience of just five. An air car taking off outside made it difficult to hear — he cringed at the sound.

“I now call meeting fourteen of the People before Technology Society into session.” He looked around, disappointed. “We can’t wait for Jenkins forever.”

“He’s sick sir.” The voice of the youngest member of the group popped up.

“Sick?”

“Yes it’s the shingles. Didn’t you exp his v-mail?”

“No Reginald. I most certainly did not experience his v-mail.” Alfred was peeved. Didn’t these people understand the purpose of the group? Before Alfred could resume he was interrupted by two loud beeps.

Reginald was being paged for a virtual meeting. The young member slipped on his wraparound glasses.

“For goodness sake Reginald, take that blasted thing off!”

There was no response. Reginald was physically present, but his mind was elsewhere. When Reginald snapped back to reality, he was chuckling as he removed the glasses. “That was Martha, she can’t make it either.”

There were several groans from the group. That would mean no after meeting scones today.

The little group consisted of ordinary folk from the small town of Beckelsford that had answered Alfred’s notice at the local store. They were ordinary people who purported to share a distaste for impersonal and confusing technical gadgetry.

Not a lot happened in Beckelsford.

“Hmmph. You can’t get people to commit to anything now days.” Alfred fumed.

“Why don’t we just virtualize this whole thing?” Reginald suggested innocently. “You know, instead of standing around in a dusty old barn we could be lying on a tropical beach or watching the world spin below us from a virtual space station. I’m sure you’d get more people joining up, from all over, not just Beckelsford.”

Another thought occurred to him. “And some of us could do with a little virtual assistance with our appearance. Not mentioning names of course.”

Alfred’s face turned beetroot red. “Virtualize?” he spat out the word like an obscenity. “Never! Virtualization is one of the instruments that have caused the degeneration of our society.”

Blank faces but Alfred ploughed on. ”Everything important used to happen in the real world, family celebrations, work, the sessions of our political representatives, and now...” Alfred trailed off into his own thoughts.

Remembering a particular barb, Alfred snapped back to his uptight self. “And Reginald, this is not a dusty old barn. It’s a converted stable. You’ve heard of stables haven’t you Reginald? A place used to keep horses. Large animals with four legs, people used to ride around on them.”

After clearing his throat aggressively to deter further interruptions Alfred began the meeting proper.

“I’ll begin with some news. My protest against HexoToolsTM has not been as successful as hoped. I’ll read you an excerpt from their reply.”

“That’s hardly a protest is it?” Miller, the town’s gruff baker interrupted. He was a stocky man with a buzz cut and was sitting on a wooden box and chewing gum.

“What?”

“Sending a message to a multi-billion dollar company is not exactly like chaining yourself to a tractor is it?”

Alfred’s red face was becoming even redder. These meetings never went to plan.

“One message on its own is not much, but if we all correspond...” Alfred was again cut off mid sentence.

“Correspond? That’s not going to get any attention. We need to do something big. Disrupt supply chains, hit them where it hurts.”

Silence took the floor as members of the group were clearly disconcerted by Miller’s line of thinking.

“Thank you for your contribution Miller but let’s press ahead with our concerted peaceful efforts.”

Reginald piped up again. “What’s wrong with an automated carving knife anyway?” The new product was at the centre of Alfred’s beef with the company.

His question met with disapproving looks.

“Think of the safety implications boy!” Alfred shook his head. “And more importantly, this is another example of technical gadgets taking over our kitchens, our homes...” After allowing a pause for emphasis, Alfred dropped his voice an octave “...our lives.”

Jamaal, a shop keeper, picked up where Alfred left off. “It saps the human spirit of its dignity.”

“Yes that’s the... um... err... spirit.” Alfred was happy to have some backup.

“Right then; next item: New and near future threats to decent human society.”

Deirdre excitedly broke into the conversation. This was her favorite part. “I’ve heard that all shoes have tracking devices implanted by the government. You need to wrap them in foil to stop the signal getting out.” There was a brief pause while the group looked down at Deirdre’s feet in uncomfortable silence. Doubtful glances were exchanged and caught in the reflection of silver-lined shoes.

“Okay, are there any other revelations?” Alfred’s head swept over the group, ignoring Deirdre’s up stretched hand. “Anyone else?” he wanted to get the meeting back on track.

“I read that Harriet Morrison has bought a holiday home just over in Dover County.” Harry, plumber and ears of the community, made his first contribution to the meeting. “The Mother of Virtualization, that’s what they call her.” Harry looked pleased with himself. His thin face would have appeared even thinner if it wasn’t compensated for by his thick black beard.

“Hmmm. Interesting.” Alfred was pleased at the contribution “Why would the Mother of Virtualization need a holiday home hey Reginald?”

Miller, the twitchy baker, was up on his feet. All he needed was a target. “Let’s go! We’ll give her a welcome she won’t soon forget.”

“Now, now Miller, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Alfred feared things were getting out of hand.

“We should do something.” Reginald was also bored of meetings. Others nodded agreement.

“Well... Yes I suppose a small protest would be appropriate.” Arthur conceded, feeling the weight of consensus.

The group resolved to meet several days later with placards and supplies at the ready.

* * *

Harriet wandered around her newest acquisition, a country home from a lost time. There was something special about this place: the sycamore trees along the drive, the clear air, the gentle warm breeze. Yes, she could retire here.

And retirement wasn’t far away. Years spent at the top had taken their toll. She could feel it, a weariness dragging at her mind and body.

The house was almost the perfect place to rest. The only annoyance was the existence of a Virtual Experience bay. It was almost impossible to find a home without one.

Harriet detected the scent of lavender blown through an open window. She breathed deeply. The sense of smell was something that no VE Bay could simulate adequately, not for lack of research.

The sound of slamming car doors and voices out in the street brought Harriet out of her reverie.

She moved towards the window but was distracted yet again, this time by a beeping sound from the back of the house. It would no doubt be the senior execs at head office. Sighing, Harriet turned towards the VE Bay.

* * *

Meanwhile outside the main gate, a small and motley group of protesters were setting up. Placards on poles were spiked into the soft earth.

REAL LIVES
NOT V-LIES

Alfred surveyed the work. He liked to encourage individual contributions, but had to wonder about some of the slogans that had been dreamed up by his strange band.

VIRTUALISE THIS!

ALL TOO OFTEN
THE LITTLE PEOPLE ARE
VIRTUALLY FORGOTTEN

They would stand and wait, chant slogans if it came to that, but essentially the work was done. Alfred felt a sense of satisfaction that the small group had at least made a statement. And then he noticed. Someone was missing.

“Where’s Miller?” Alfred asked, his voice indicating concern.

He turned toward the direction Reginald was pointing and then followed the tree line with his eyes. The house was encircled on all sides by a manicured garden lined with sycamore trees.

“No, no, no” Alfred muttered, pacing, trying to suppress a dark suspicion. Did he have a madman in his group? He felt an obligation to take responsibility for the little band he had assembled.

“Remind me Reginald, what did Miller used to do before he was a baker?” Alfred asked with dread.

“Marines I believe sir. Had some trouble there I hear.”

“Oh.” Alfred shuffled his feet nervously.

“Sir, I think I saw something.”

Alfred followed Reginald’s gaze. Yes, movement behind one of the trees. Then there he was, bursting out into the open with arms and legs pumping.

Alfred stood slack jawed as Miller took strides like an Olympic sprinter, bare chest exposed and t-shirt wrapped around his head like a warrior’s bandana.

Alfred began awkwardly scaling the gate that Miller must have vaulted silently unnoticed.

“What on earth is he doing?” Alfred asked himself under his breath as Miller disappeared around the side of the house.

The answer came all too suddenly, first as a bright flash and then as a thunderous explosion that shook Alfred from the gate. He was sent tumbling into one of the placards and grabbed onto the pole for support. The erected placard swiveled under his weight to accuse him in large letters.

REPENT NOW!

Miller had single-handedly moved the People before Technology Society into a whole new league.

“My God” Alfred exclaimed, stepping toward the gate and scaling it in a dream like state. He fell to the other side clumsily, just in time to see Miller running the opposite direction.

“Run for it man! Freedom!” Miller shouted before giving two thumbs up and vaulting the gate with fluid movements.

Alfred scrambled to his feet and walked on. His pace quickened with every step and he was soon running towards the house, driven by a sense of responsibility and guilt.

He found his way inside by squeezing gingerly through the remains of a window. Heat and flames greeted him like a rabid dog snapping at his face.

Alfred edged his way away from the flames and found a central hallway. “Is there anyone here?” he called.

He couldn’t help notice the grandeur of the house, striking even scarred as it was by the smoke.

He moved from room to room covering his face, first with his hand and then with his shirt. The smoke was thickening.

Alfred found the VE Bay in a room at the back of the house. The device consisted of a sleek metallic central cylinder surrounded by four transparent cocoons.

One of the cocoons was occupied. There she was, the Mother of Virtualization, Harriet.

Alfred tapped at the cocoon and seeing no response, banged his fist and shouted. There was still no reaction from within.

He yelled with his face just centimeters from the cocoon’s unconscious occupant but succeeded only in misting the transparent shield.

Alfred sighed and sunk backwards, taking a seat inside an unoccupied cocoon. Maybe he could reach her this way.

He swung his feet inside and lay down. Sensing the shift in weight, the cocoon slid closed. A buzzing sound like that of wet power lines became louder and louder. Colorful streaming lights overtook his vision, brightening and melding into a single white canvas. The light receded and Alfred found himself at the end of a hallway, standing in front of a heavy wooden door.

The smell of smoke was still as strong.

He grabbed the brass handle, tentatively opened the door and was immediately struck by the sound of raised voices.

Within he saw a round room enclosed by wall to ceiling windows. Young and stylish figures were spaced sparsely around a table at the room’s centre. Two of the figures, a young red haired woman and a bulky man were standing and yelling at one another across the table.

Alfred’s attention was drawn passed the feuding pair and to the view beyond. The windows framed an impossible blue dotted with wispy clouds. A sight from a distant time: clean sky unblemished.

Quiet as he had been, Alfred had not entered unnoticed. The meeting participants had turned towards him. The woman with fiery red hair was eying him suspiciously. There was something in her visage that was remarkably familiar.

“Who are you?” The bulky man demanded, face still flushed from the argument and now stepping around the table towards Alfred.

Alfred, dumbstruck, edged his way around the table away from the following man. His eyes glanced downwards and he caught a glimpse of skyscrapers far below, littering the surface like toy building blocks. A passenger jet streamed over the miniature city. This truly was an office in the heavens.

He felt a hand placed firmly on his shoulder. “Who are you?” the man repeated.

“I... I...” Alfred’s words stumbled from his mouth. “There’s a fire in the house, I came to warn her.” His arm stretched out and pointed to the young woman with red hair. He understood now, the woman was the virtual representation of Harriet Morrison.

“What? You’re in my house?” Harriet was up and heading towards him. She stopped abruptly, now noticing the hint of smoke for the first time.

“I’m just...” Alfred’s words trailed off. “It was just meant to be a peaceful demonstration.” he said more to himself than to anyone else.

“You’ve got to get back, Harriet.” One of the executives said, she was dragged away and then headed out the door.

Alfred attempted to follow but was held. He thought suddenly of his body that lay in a cocoon within a burning house.

Harriet returned unexpectedly only seconds later. “Let him go.”

There was hesitation on the part of his captors.

“I said let him go. He’s no threat and I won’t let either of us be burned alive.” Alfred was set free and the pair hurried out the door.

Flashing lights and a familiar buzzing accompanied the return to reality. Alfred coughed as the cocoon opened and he was soon enveloped in smoke.

“Come on Alfred.” It was the voice of young Reginald. “I couldn’t get that darned thing to open.”

Harriet had emerged from her cocoon and was staring around with an expression of disbelief. Her eyes focused accusingly on Alfred, who was babbling and motioning an awkward apology. His face was soon lost in the smoke.

Harriet, sensing that this was not the time for recriminations, grabbed hold of Alfred and his young accomplice and pushed them into motion.

The trio, while being stung by burning embers, scampered outside. Alfred for once welcomed the sight of the stained sky above. Sirens approached as he collapsed to the soft earth.

* * *

“Rubbish! That’s not accurate.” exclaimed Alfred as he sat in his comfy chair and read the headline: FRINGE GROUP BOMB TECHNOLOGY PIONEER’S HOUSE.

Miller had been arrested and eventually the police were convinced he was acting alone.

Even so, the People before Technology Society had been disbanded. It was time to give letter writing another chance.

Alfred met with several former members once a week for darts at the local pub. This was of course with the exception of Miller who was now a member of a different type of club altogether.

* * *

Thud. A blue feathered dart struck double 20.

“You know Reginald...” Alfred began as he pulled darts from the board. “I’m really starting to enjoy these weekly competitions. It helps to unwind and take the mind off things.”

Reginald placed his beer on the table, getting ready to take his turn. “You’re getting quite good sir. I mean, since that time your dart went out the window and hit....”

“Yes Reginald, thank you for reminding me.” Alfred didn’t want to hear that story again. “And you can stop calling me ‘sir’.”

Alfred approached the bar to order another drink. Deirdre and Harry were talking over cocktails. “...it mops and scrubs and they say it operates completely unattended.”

“A bit of a worry that. I mean, imagine if it got onto your carpets.”

“Oh. Hello, Alfred. Sit down, man. You’re looking a little pale.”


Copyright © 2007 by Phillip Pettit

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