by Lorna Garano

The timer on Tajen's Vest read 48 seconds. The seizure was less than a minute away. I stuck the Harbnizone syringe into the catheter that dangled off his side like a misplaced tail. The timer clicked up first to 60 seconds, then to 94, then to an hour before returning to the word SAFE.

            Tajen's body slumped. I wrapped his arm around me and pulled down on his wrist with both of my hands. My vest bit into my stomach as I walked him over to a sand dune. I sat next to him to prop up his still-vacated body. His soft hair rubbed against my cheek, and the only sound was the water approaching and then retreating against the beach like a hesitant lover. No emergency follow-up, no calibrated-for-calm mechanical voice coming from Tajen's Vest asking me if I needed assistance, wanting to know if we were out of danger, promising help if we weren't. The communication signal had definitely been scrambled. 

In one of his panics, Tajen tried to convince me to be satisfied with Vests that didn't talk and were nothing more than fancy health monitors, but that would never have been enough. I wanted a life unmonitored, unencumbered by the machinery that had been fused to me against my will. I wanted an unwatched emptiness, the unimaginable. When I got anxious—and despite what he thought, Tajen wasn't the only one who got scared—I imagined a Naked world, all of us living like they did in Seranon. Our short lives punctuated by heart attacks and strokes and seizures and diabetic comas, but Naked and unseen by CareCorps. Our data returned to facts, our movements swift and easy for being unseen. The future would be a negative, defined only by what we no longer had. Our freedom was a stripping away, an unmooring, beyond which I required no promises. 

            Tajen started to stir. He grabbed a handful of sand and then shot up, twisting his head from side to side, until his memory returned. 

            “How close was I?” he asked.

            “Forty-eight seconds.”

             “Forty-eight  seconds? Under a minute. You know when we're Naked—”

            I tightened my face. 

            “Your arrhythmia won't be corrected either,” he continued and then looked down at the fist that still clutched a handful of wet sand. He opened his hand and the clump fell to the ground falling apart midway. 

            We'd had this conversation before, long before the kellsar scrambled us.

            “You've already forgotten the stats the kellsar reeled off before cutting communication? Don't make assumptions.”

            He kept looking down and his face flushed. The stats, which we already knew about, were repeated mostly to stop Tajen from shaking and hyperventilating. The reassurance of numbers, of odds, of measurable risk and hinted-at safety put him at ease long enough for the kellsar to electronically pierce the Vests, which had been soldered to our chests at birth right after our health tests and rewrite the communication code so that it registered SAFE no matter what our health measures.    

            “Only one in twenty-five people on average actually has seizures; one in fifty really has arrhythmia, or diabetes, or high blood pressure. CareCorps grossly inflates—”

            “Okay, okay‚Ķ I was there too. Remember,” he shouted.

            I had turned his fear into anger, which was easier to relieve. 

            I walked behind him and pressed my back against his. After a few seconds he pressed back and we grabbed each other's hands.  The barge appeared just above the horizon. I squeezed Tajen's hands and then let go of them. We had lost time and would have to run to the port—not easy with our Vests, which were not the lightweight model the kids get today. 

            “Let's go. No time anymore,” I shouted and started running. The massive gray cargo ship that looked like it had a skyline on in its deck came into clearer view. Even with my shorter legs I arrived first at the pier and wasn't nearly as winded as Tajen.  The air smelled of oil and salt and as we watched the ship make its final approach the water frothed up against its sides. The gangway unfolded onto the dock and the square-shouldered orange-jumpsuited crew filed out without looking at us. “Crain 1213,” the first one called back to the others. We looked into the dark abyss of the ship. Tajen grabbed my hand and I could feel the heat of his fear build between us.

            Then he appeared in the doorway and we headed up the ramp. He was just as the kellsar had described him: big bellied and a nose that looked like a handful of clay had been slapped into the middle of his face. He took the travel papers the kellsar had manufactured for us and stamped “Boarded, 3rd Moon Measure: 8812.12396, Grid B travel. Destination Country: Seranon. Plane 5.”  

            “You'll be more comfortable on the lower deck.”  His voice surprised me. It sounded like it had been deboned and was close to a whisper. 

            Tajen and I sat below and listen to the ship being unloaded and then loaded again. At first Tajen started every time a palate banged against the upper deck, but he relaxed and even dozed off on my shoulder for a few minutes. When I ran my fingers through his hair one of my callouses snagged against the silk-like strands. 

            “We're on our way. Soon we'll be Naked,” I whispered into his ear. Then I start giggling. It was inappropriate, but I couldn't stop myself. Soon I'd be free of the Vest, free of the eye that was always clear and never slept watching me. If I had arrhythmia it would be a short life, but I would rather be Naked for an hour than Vested for a lifetime, and I had convinced Tajen that he would prefer the same because he was one thing that my empty future had to contain. 

section break

I watched Tajen from one of the crasskor trees that grew on Seranon. Some said they were mythical, but that, like so much else, was CareCorps propaganda. I sat on one of the chair-like cups made of hard bark that rested atop each of the tree's arms. In the months since becoming Naked climbing had become one of my favorite activities and I'd taught Tajen to scale up the crasskor until we reached the very top and could squeeze together into one of the tiny holds.             

            Tajen sat on the ground. He had followed me to the tree, but wouldn't climb it.         

            “It's lonely up here,” I called down to him. 

            At first I thought he was moving his legs to get up, but then I realized that it was the first jolt. His legs flew and then retracted, then shot out and trembled along with the rest of his body, which was marionetted by his brain's crossed signals. I didn't move. There was no harbnizone, no catheter, no Vest, and nothing I could do. Tajen's neck snapped back and forth and his head pounded the dirt below him. Then the shaking stopped, ended like a piece of music run through its movements and he fell into a deep sleep. I climbed down from the crasskor and watched his empty chest rise and fall. Then I lay across him, covering the nakedness that only I could see.