Awaiting Assessment

Note: The following short story was originally a submission to a writing zine with the prompt being “birth and death” with a 1,500 word character limit. The story wasn’t selected for the zine, so I figured I’d share it with all of you.

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678545. Candidate OH-1-3678545 please report to assessment area six at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678545 to assessment area six.*

Isidora stared at her candidate card and carefully reviewed her number. OH-1-3678549. Only four more to go. This was the most stressful part of birthdays for Isidora. Arrive, politely decline assessment, leave. It was redundant, painful, and emotionally exhausting. Accepting assessment, however, would be worse.

A tall man walked through the entry way, crossed the room, then took a seat beside Isidora. She watched as he reached into his wallet, pulled out an emerald green card — the telltale color of assessment cards issued within the nation — placed it carefully in his left hand, then replaced his wallet in his pocket. The man was visibly upset, tears streaming down his face.

“First time here?” Isidora asked. She knew it wasn’t his first time at the Bureau. Everyone has to report to the Bureau yearly on their birthday upon turning 17 unless they choose to receive assessment. If a person chooses to receive assessment, they are no longer required to visit the Bureau until age 80 or three years before they die, whichever is set to come first.

“No,” the man meekly said, his voice trailing off as he spoke.

“Every time feels like my first time here,” replied Isidora. “I hate it just as much every time.”

The man shuffled his assessment card in his hands, flicking his fingers over the rounded edges. As he did so, the overhead lights reflected off the card, allowing Isidora to see the number. OH-1-3678551.

“You’re only two after me,” she stated. “Born around 2:30 pm in 2136?”

“2:36 pm,” said the man softly.

“I’m Isidora.”

Isidora reached out her hand to shake the man’s hand. The man stared at her hand for a moment, then cautiously presented his own.

“Penn. Penn Carrington.”

“You mean like the singer?” Isidora asked.

“Yeah, like the singer,” Penn replied. “It’s a good thing the Bureau gives us these numbers, otherwise I’d be mistaken for him all the time. Well, that and the fact that I’m tall, black, and quiet and he’s none of those things.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678546. Candidate OH-1-3678546 please report to assessment area eleven at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678546 to assessment area eleven.*

“You’re telling them no then?” Penn asked.

“Yeah,” responded Isidora. “I know assessment’s an accepted practice now, but I just don’t feel right knowing when I’m going to die. You know?”

“I get it,” replied Penn.

The transmitter on Penn’s left wrist lit up orange, indicating a restricted communication arriving. Penn touched the transmitter, hiding himself from Isidora’s view in the process. She waited quietly, watching as the previously called candidate made her way across the room. The candidate was a young woman, much like Isidora, though she was wheelchair bound. An orderly wheeled her to the door leading to assessment area eleven. Isidora wondered how long the candidate had to live. She often found herself wondering when those she came in contact with would die. But she didn’t want to know her own expiration date.

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678547. Candidate OH-1-3678547 please report to assessment area two at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678547 to assessment area two.*

Penn ended his transmission, coming back into view for Isidora and those around. He had reverted back to crying, much like he was when he first walked in.

Isidora reached into her clutch and produced a small package of tissues. She handed them to Penn. He gratefully took them from her, removing one of the tissues from the case and wiping his eyes with it.

“Thank you,” Penn said, handing the package of tissues back to Isidora. He held his lone tissue tightly in his left hand, balling it up atop the candidate card.

“Is everything alright?” Isidora asked. “If that’s not too personal, that is.”

“Not particularly. Trying to take care of the affairs of my wife.”

“Oh dear. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

“You couldn’t have known. It’s a bit of a birthday downer, even more so than a trip to the Bureau.”

“May I ask what happened?” Isidora asked.

“She um…,” Penn stammered, trying to collect his thoughts. “she died two weeks ago. Heart attack at the age of 27.”

“That’s so sad!” Isidora exclaimed.

“I didn’t know it was coming. None of us did. I mean, we knew there was a chance that Mira — that was my wife, Mira — would have heart issues. Both of her parents died from heart conditions in their fifties. She…”

Penn took a deep breath and stared into the room in front of him. He watched as a young man walked out of the room, a large packet of papers in hand. The man was clearly shaken. Like Mira, he’d die soon. The assessor had confirmed as much.

“She felt she had time to live her life without worry before she had to worry about getting assessed,” Penn continued. “We were both planning to get an assessment done when we turned 40. Halfway to the required visit age seemed like as good of time as any to know.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678548. Candidate OH-1-3678548 please report to assessment area two at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678548 to assessment area two.*

“They must have said no,” said Penn. “I always said no. So did Mira. She’s gone now though. I’m a 28-year-old single father. I need to know if I’m going to be around for my daughter or if I need to make plans for her.”

Isidora stared at her assessment card. Only one spot until she would be called. She grabbed a tissue out of her case, handed it to Penn, then took one for herself. Isidora wiped away the tears that had begun to well up in her eyes.

“Do you have anyone you’re responsible for, Isidora?” Penn asked.

“No,” she responded, “not yet. No kids, no spouse, no partner. My roommate will be living until age 83. My parents each have at least 25 years left and none of my grandparents will be passing for the next five years.”

“So they all know?”

“Everyone in my family knows. My roommate’s father was an assessor before he died. I’m the only person I know personally who doesn’t know when I’ll die.”

“Why not?” Penn asked.

“Because my creators gave me a choice. My parents sat me down at a young age and told me about how assessment worked, my choice, and the consequences of knowing and not knowing. It’s scary not knowing, but I’d prefer not to be counting down the days until I get hit by a bus, die from cancer, or never wake up from sleep.”

*Now reviewing candidate OH-1-3678549. Candidate OH-1-3678549 please report to assessment area four at this time. Candidate OH-1-3678549 to assessment area four.*

“That’s you,” stated Penn.

Isidora rose from her seat and started walking towards the assessment room. She stopped and turned back to Penn.

“Regardless of what you find out today,” she said, “you should get some cake and ice cream for you and your daughter. It is your birthday after all.”

“Happy birthday to you too, Isidora,” replied Penn.

Isidora entered assessment room four. She proceeded towards a single white stool in the sterile white room. Across from her stool, a gangly woman in a white lab coat sat on a white stool with a white computer on a white desk in front of her.

“Please sit.”

Isidora sat down on the stool.

“Candidate OH-1-3678549, given name Isidora Pía Lorca Cabrera. Born March the 11th, 2136 at 2:32 pm. Please confirm your identity.”

“I am as you say I am,” said Isidora. The required identification response still seemed forced to Isidora, even after years of saying it.

“Thank you. Candidate OH-1-3678549, do you wish to undergo assessment?”

“I do not,” Isidora replied.

“Please confirm your denial of assessment formally.”

“I, Candidate OH-1-3678549, hereby decline assessment for one calendar year.”

“Thank you. Please exit.”

Isidora rose from her stool and made her way back to the Bureau lobby. Penn was gone, off to his assessment room to learn his fate. Isidora zipped her jacket up and walked out of the building, striding through the late winter snowfall to her transport.

She sat inside the transport, her warm breath fogging up the cold windshield. With a long sigh, she spoke into her transmitter.

“Remind me to receive assessment next year at this time,” said Isidora.

“Reminder set.”

Isidora let out a deep breath and pressed the button to start her transport. A loud explosion ripped through the air, its force tearing apart both the transport and Isidora alike. As the Bureau building caught fire, those inside evacuated out the back. Penn was happy to learn he wouldn’t die that day. He only hoped the same was true for Isidora.

Can We Talk About Black Mirror For A Second?

Warning: Spoilers. If you care about that. You shouldn’t. But just in case you do.

I’m not much of a TV person. I’ve got a small handful of shows I’ll watch semi-regularly with my wife, but there are very few shows over the last ten years that I can honestly say I went out of my way to keep up with. Even then, the shows have tended to be comedies (Archer, South Park), current events shows (The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, The Colbert Report), or anime (RWBY, Death Note). It takes a lot for me to care about dramas. Outside of The Blacklist and Sherlock, there haven’t been many dramas that I’ll go out of my way to recommend to people.

And then there’s Black Mirror.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

One problem I’ve long had with most television is that it’s formulaic. You almost always know exactly what you’re getting when you watch week to week. Even with “unscripted” shows like Big Brother or Whose Line Is It Anyway?, you’ve still got production companies to clean up the messes and deliver the message that they want their viewers to see. Though sports matches are unscripted and happen in real time, I’ve even struggled to watch those in most situations because the drama and twists don’t move me the way they once did.

Black Mirror is beautifully written. Because of the fact that each episode is a standalone story within the season, all of the loose ends need to be tied up — not necessarily neatly — in order for the episode to end.  You see this in nearly every episode, though there’s still episode to episode continuity in spite of this. The control technology for the grains in “The Entire History of You” makes repeated appearances throughout the series, while the grains themselves aren’t that different from the “cookies” used in “White Christmas”, which isn’t that far of a leap from the alternate reality technology used in “San Junipero”.

Black Mirror is dark as fuck. But that’s not what makes it interesting. It’s that it’s dark as fuck while straddling a very fine line between reality and science fiction. We can easily envision a reality where a technology company uses social media profiles of deceased person to allow alive loved ones to connect with them once more (and not just because one tech company is already trying it). It’s a bit harder for us to envision a dead person’s social media profiles inhabiting a live, interactive android like the one in “Be Right Back”.

The show, in many ways, serves as a cautionary tale for the reality we’re already in. I mean, it’s not like a joke candidate whose only goal is to speak to the uneducated by being provocative, racist, and otherwise just a general terrible excuse for morality would ever succeed in an election like Waldo the Bear did in “The Waldo Moment”, right? There’s no way a person’s social media status could ever determine their social status like what happens in “Nosedive”, can it? It’s not like internet trolls with no moral compass could ever ruin the lives of so many while remaining safe themselves like what happened in “Shut Up and Dance”. Obviously none of those things could ever come to fruition in reality…

Despite all of the excellent episodes so far[1], there’s two that stood out to me for different reasons. The first is “White Bear”, which is the middle episode of series[2] two.  The episode focuses on a woman, Victoria, who, along with her fiancee, kidnapped, murdered, and filmed said murder of a six year old child. Victoria’s sentence for her part in the crimes is to undergo an experience that would cause her to feel the same feelings of terror that her victim experienced. As such, Victoria is chased around by people trying to kill her all day. Of course, the “killers” are putting on a show, but Victoria doesn’t know that. Victoria’s mind is wiped every night, meaning that she believes that the threat on her life is real. Every single day for the rest of her life.

In addition to Victoria’s eye-for-an-eye punishment going on every day for the rest of her life, her escapades are part of a facility known as the White Bear Justice Park. The park not only administers Victoria’s punishment, but it also charges admission and lets park gets get up close and personal as they watch Victoria’s torture. The episode hearkens back to medieval times where crowds would father before someone was taken to the gallows, only to leave when their blood lust was satiated by death. The episode is an exceptionally bleak look into the psyche of mob mentality. I left the episode wondering deeply about where the line cruel and unusual punishment truly existed in society — as well as whether or not this latent desire for torture really exists within each of us.

The other episode that stuck out to me was the episode “San Junipero”. The episode is arguably the most uplifting of the entire series[3], which is saying something as both main characters of the episode are dead at the end. The city of San Junipero is nothing more than a computer simulation, one where people who have died go to live out their eternity as they see fit if they so choose to do so. Both of the two main characters — Yorkie and Kelly — are terminally ill, and are in the process of spending time in San Junipero to determine if that’s where they want to spend eternity.

Yorkie and Kelly fall in love with each other — a fact which wouldn’t have happened outside of the simulation as Yorkie has been in a comatose state since she was 21 and Kelly was married for 45+ years — and eventually decide to spend their lives (deaths?) together in the simulation after they’ve both passed on. The concept itself is an interesting take on the idea of an afterlife that is so pervasive in religion. Of all of the technologies and advancements shown in the entire series, this is the one I’d most like to see exist. Could you imagine the works of art, literature, and music that could come out of people’s consciousnesses surviving in a digital world?

If you haven’t seen Black Mirror yet, go watch it on Netflix now. If you have seen it, what did you think? What’s your favorite episode? For the love of all things holy, just go comment so we can talk about the show.