As Aura closed the door behind her, the white bathroom lit up — three faint clicks, one for each light. The one over the mirror, the brightest, came last; it illuminated her figure, wrapped in a green, velvety towel. She examined herself for a moment, tipping her head slightly to either side. A frown sinking into her features, she clutched the towel to her chest with one hand and lifted the other to her shoulder. The skin around her collarbone looked like hamburgers from old movies, pink and tender. When she prodded the skin with her finger, a white silhouette stayed behind. She poked the other shoulder, deeper pink, and winced. She’d have to take a trip downtown; if she were to survive the summer, higher SPF would be a necessity.
The delicate, narrow stream of cool water that greeted her when she stepped into the shower soothed the burns on her shoulders, and as blue digital numbers on the screen in front of her flashed, beeped, and began to count down from four minutes, she imagined steam rising from the back of her neck, like a searing campfire stove doused in a lake. She’d never been camping herself, just read about it in her great-grandmother’s journal. Bears, snakes, mountain peaks, freshly caught fish for dinner — reading the journal was like reading a fantasy, slipping into a daydream. The only bears Aura had ever seen whirred around a couple feet off the ground, disrupting her sleep when their inexperienced drivers crashed into something. Her mountain peaks were the tops of buildings, kept perpetually out of sight by the overpowering reflection of sunlight off shiny windows. Her mind floated away for a moment as she stared at her feet, lost in the imagined images of her great-grandmother’s adventures.
An itch on the back of her neck brought her mind back to the shower. She looked up: three red zeros flashing in her face. “Oh shit!” she felt herself say as her stomach churned, heart stopped. Slipping, nearly falling, she frantically stumbled forward and pressed a finger against the lower right hand corner of the screen. Why the hell didn’t the alarm work? Her first house, first month, and she’d already been cited for two violations. She clutched at her chest, breathing deep, slowing her heart, and stepped out of the shower. This one wasn’t as bad; she’d only been daydreaming for a split second, right? The timer must have hit zeros right when she looked up. The last two fines hadn’t crippled her, but that didn’t mean she wanted a third. She kept breathing deep as she dried herself and got dressed. It would be fine. No need to panic.
As she walked from her bedroom to the kitchen, more faint clicks followed her, illuminating her small palace. It wasn’t much, but it was hers. The baby-blue countertops, the smooth white floor, the plasma-screen walls — every Monday was beach scenery day. She needed something to jumpstart her week, and eating breakfast next to 3D digital palm trees certainly helped. Still, before she could indulge, she had to go through her routine step-by-step. Focus on everything and go slow, she told herself. No more violations.
First, recycling. Singing to herself as she went, she emptied her four collection bins into the large plastic canister by the door, obsessively gathering and examining every single leftover in her house like an antique mouse collector. Nothing could go to waste; flunking the next inspection would be another violation. Her heart stopped again when she realized that she’d almost missed the wrapping from dinner the previous night; she’d come home from work frazzled and carelessly tossed her jacket onto the counter, hiding the dinner’s plastic packaging. If they found it, the inspectors would explain that there was enough material in that packaging to power her plasma-screen walls, maybe even her sleek new TV. They’d be like robots. In their lifeless monotone, they’d go on to explain that citizens can’t afford to waste anything. Anything. They would finish ominously: “When the next catastrophe comes, power failure or storm, look to yourself for the cause. You the People hold each other in balance every day.” Then they’d stick her with another fine.
After the recycling was finished, Aura peddled the bike in her living room until her thighs burned. Ten minutes of hard peddling generated just enough energy to meet her daily generator contribution requirements, but it didn’t make her sweat enough to negate the shower. With one push of a button, the video of her morning routine was sent off to the national database, Mainframe, to be reviewed by some guy in D.C. — at least she assumed it was D.C. That was top secret information. She always wondered if the Mainframe workers were perverts. She’d been cited for a violation after going through her routine naked on one of her first mornings in the new house. She didn’t think the reviewers actually hated it as much as the fine indicated.
Finally breakfast, a few moments of non-videotaped freedom. Opening the meal package, she looked out the circular window next to the door. Over the distant skyline, those foreboding towers, dark clouds were piling into the valley. Aura thought she saw a tornado over one of the bare, brown hills in the distance, but it was probably just her imagination running wild again. Tornadoes weren’t quite as common in Alaska as they were in British Columbia and the Northwest Territory. Thankfully, none had been devastating yet. But then again, it was only May. A gust of wind whirled dust and tiny pebbles into the side of Aura’s house; the sudden crackling against the window made her jump.
Happy to ignore the clouds and the buildings and the wind, Aura sat at the counter with her pancakes. But before she could take a bite, the howl of sirens drowned out the wind. In an instant, they were right outside her door. Aura’s beaches vanished, the plasma walls blank. An automated female voice, disgustingly articulate, filled the air: “Aura Romero. Please step outside.” But Aura was frozen to her stool, pancakes mocking her, heart pounding. “Shit, shit, shit!” She looked around wildly, trying to think of some way to escape.
But after what seemed like just seconds, the door slid open, revealing four tall men in dark blue uniforms, guns and gadgets strapped to their waists. “Aura Romero, you must come with us,” they said in unison. “This is your third water violation.” Two stepped forward and grabbed her arms.
Aura’s heart would explode. “But,” she stammered, “but my alarm doesn’t work! Please, I didn’t mean to –”
In a flash, she was being dragged outside toward a hovering red vehicle with black windows and ten doors. Her neighbors watched from behind red police laser lines, little girls crying, parents sullen. Shoved into a middle door, Aura looked around through blurry eyes. All black interior, a muscular black woman in a suit seated next to the window. Hysterical, Aura gasped, “I swear, my alarm didn’t work! I tried so hard to avoid –”
The woman held up a hand, her jaw clenched. “This is your third water violation. The law is clear. You must understand the justification; citizens cannot waste water, Miss Romero. You the People hold each other in balance. This nation will avoid suffering if you follow the law.”
Tears silently rolled down Aura’s cheeks as the landscape flew by, a blur of treeless hills, hazy sprawl. It was as if the woman in the suit had sucked speech from her throat; the words “we already suffer” never formed on her lips.