In the not-too-distant future, mandatory, state-enforced high-tech microsurgery will enable all citizens to join the brave new colorblind e-race. In his latest cutting speculative parable, fast-rising SF writer Russell Nichols satirizes techno-optimism, the ways tech is deployed in the service of 'combatting' racism, and much more. Enjoy. -the Ed
[Starting tomorrow, racism in America will be history!]
When the urgent notification popped up in his eye-mail, the very old man swatted it away.
How was he still getting these damn things? He unsubscribed twenty times at least from this mailing list he never even signed up for. Tried to block them. What part of no means no didn’t these parasites understand? Last week he was so fed up with the spamming, he called the U.S. Department of Reparations toll-free number to strongly suggest they go straight to hell, but nobody answered.
[Today marks the deadline for compliance. After midnight, all non-members of the new e-race will face severe penalties, including…]
He slapped at the air again, deleting the message mid-scroll. Then groaned, rolling over in bed. The nubs where his legs used to be itched. The sign of a storm coming. Then: Boom! Boom! Boom! On the door of his senior living pod. He pulled the cover over his head, but knew he couldn’t hide.
“Police!” came the voice from the other side. “Open up, Mr. Ellison!”
Fifteen minutes later, the security guard dragged Ellison into a crowded microsurgery clinic.
“Get your hands off me!” Ellison hollered, fighting but failing to break free. “I’m exempt!”
The guard took Ellison to reception. “Got another 406 for ya.”
“Wunderbar!” said the receptionist. She aimed an ID scanner, clicked, and a blue light flashed. The data loaded onto her computer. “Waldo Ellison. Been playing a little hooky, have we?”
“No, no, seriously, I—I’m handicapped, look—” Ellison showed off his robotic prosthetics. “I’m supposed to get a pass.”
The guard bent down like talking to a toddler. “Can you say man-da-tory?”
“Please,” Ellison pleaded. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Rightio, you’re supposed to be over there.” The receptionist pointed to the long line of people waiting to go through pre-op body scanners. Then she pressed an intercom and muttered, “Need a fix on a 406,” as the guard escorted Ellison away.
“Hold up, I can’t do this. I don’t do hospital beds, I break out real bad—”
“If you try to break out of here, it won’t be good. Trust me.”
The guard patted Ellison’s shoulder and left him in the back of the line. The line was a snarl-up, going nowhere, like a scene from the DMV back in the day, before autonomous cars. A shame that cars learned to be autonomous before people. Look at them. More like drones in skin wrapping paper. With zero perspective beyond their eye-mail. Look at them, staring all blank, scrolling through retinal feeds, the contents of which Ellison could only guess—e-race fashion dos and don’ts: Do wear bright colors and you’ll be fab! Don’t wear gray or you’ll look drab!
Didn’t they see what was happening?
[The Indivisible Nation Act will level the playing field by eliminating the perception of skin color from the visual cortex…]
Ellison whacked the notification away with a grunt.
Then: a voice behind him. “What's the matter, legacy?”
[Legacy [leg-uh-see] noun, offensive: An old or obsolete person with machine parts]
Ellison dismissed the pop-up definition, turned around. “Whatchu call me?!”
Standing in line behind him was a boy, maybe fifteen, wearing an LED shirt that kept flashing Now You See Me then Now You Don't.
“No trigger, no trigger,” he said with his hands up. “Just launching dialogue with you. Looking like we'll be frozen here a minute.”
Ellison almost asked the boy where his parents were, but then remembered he didn’t give a shred of damn. He turned back around, hoping a non-response would shut him up.
But the boy asked: “Why you all sad-faced?”
Ellison turned around. “Lookie here, you—”
“Call me Disher.”
“I’m tired and it’s about to rain and I'm just tryna get out of here. And I got a hunch that if you zip those lips of yours, that’ll happen a helluva lot faster, you got me?”
Ellison turned back around.
“I think I got you,” Disher said.
Ellison turned around. “No, no, you clearly don't, see, ‘cause that was a rhetorical question. That means you’re not supposed to answer.”
“I know what rhetorical means.”
“Then why are you still talking to me?”
Disher frowned. “Is that rhetorical?”
Ellison shook his head, turned back around.
“Why the downvotes, legs? I mean, judging by your body-mods, that last-gen suit and your buggy social skills, I’m getting a strong centenarian signal. I fig, what, a buck oh-five? Buck ten? Point being, this should be an achievement day for you.”
Ellison scoffed. “Achievement day.”
“No more color lines. Equality all around. That’s God particle!”
Ellison glared at Disher. Was he born remedial? Or was that LED shirt offing brain cells?
“It’s Trojan horse-shit,” Ellison said.
“Edit: Okay, maybe not God particle, but at least it’s a step in—”
“Whatchu infected with? Verify, I’m not as ancient as you. Still I’ve d-loaded enough history to know it was all glitched up back in your era. But now, thanks to this program, I can be somebody.”
Ellison palmed his face. “A monochrome somebody.”
“Legs, you can’t act like complexion don’t matter. You know how long it took me to find a job? How many opps declined me because my skin tone? How about all the undocs looking for sanctuary?” Disher motioned to the people in line. “Like or dislike, this new law levels the playing—”
“Spare me the sound bites, alright? It’s the same field, different game.” Then, without thinking, Ellison shouted: “You fools really think not seeing color will make racism disappear?!”
“Who's a fool?” came a voice from the crowd.
Ellison felt all eyes on him. But he got an idea: If he could get enough of these drones riled up, the guard would have to step in, and Ellison could step right the hell out.
“Who’s a fool?” he asked. “Everybody in this line, that’s who.”
“Who this legacy think he trolling?” somebody asked, rhetorically.
“I speak the truth!” he said. “You're all getting herded up like cattle. In the name of equality. Am I the only one seeing this?”
“Amigo, you're going to be seeing a whole lot less if you keep at it,” somebody said.
Ellison kept at it. “Discrimination never dies. If not the color of your skin, it'll be your accent.”
Pointing to various people around him. “Or your eyes. Or your nose. Your height. Or your weight.”
Ellison pointed to Disher. “That hair.” To himself. “These legs.” A man in a color-changing hijab.
“That Christmas ornament on your head.”
His partner pushed Ellison's hand away. “You crossed the line.”
“See, exactly, that's my point! There will always be a line.”
The security guard waved a finger at Ellison. A warning to stop.
Ellison didn’t stop. “Do any of you know what it feels like to get hit in the face by a high-pressure fire hose? I'm talking enough water pressure to tear bark off a tree or brick off a wall. Of course you don’t, but I do. See, I was out there, Kelly Ingram Park, singing ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around’ while getting sprayed to the ground by pigs.”
The security guard didn’t budge.
“Bet you never even heard that song, huh? Listen, don’t be mad at me, I’m only speaking truth! I grew up in the segregated South. Marches, boycotts, sit-ins. Out there fighting for my rights. My life. But see, that’s what’s wrong with you kids today. You don’t know nothing about sacrifice!”
The security guard wasn’t intervening.
“And now look at you, staring all blank, scrolling through retinal feeds, for what? e-race fashion dos and don’ts? Do wear bright colors and you’ll be fab! Don’t wear gray or you’ll look drab! Ha! You’re standing in line for a mandatory surgery to be colorblind and that’s supposed to be quote-unquote great for America? I didn’t vote for this. Did you vote for this?”
Why wasn’t the security guard intervening?!
“But wasn’t this the end game?” Disher said. “A future where we don’t see color? That means all the protests paid off, right? Isn’t this the world Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of?”
The question wasn’t exactly rhetorical. But Ellison didn’t answer fast enough, and the tension evaporated with murmurs of “That’s true.”/“Good point.”/“Preach!”
Ellison hollered: “I know where I stand!”
Somebody hollered back: “Yeah, in line just like the rest of us!”
The crack drew laughs. Moment gone, just like that. Everybody went back to their business. Scrolling through retinal feeds. The security guard raised his fist in the air like “power to the people.”
Ellison, rage boiling over, stepped out of line. Power walking. Straight for the guard.
[Starting tomorrow, racism in America will be history!]
Ellison punched the notification.
The guard held his ground, grabbed his nightstick.
Ellison closing in.
[Starting tomorrow, racism in America will be history! Today marks the deadline…]
Ellison batted the air. He’d show them a deadline.
The guard stepped forward, winding up.
“Don’t take another step!” he said.
Ellison didn’t stop. But a default safety feature made his legs slow down.
The guard lit up, convinced of his godlike power.
Ellison pushed himself forward, but Disher’s hand grabbed his arm, holding him back.
“No ban, mods,” Disher told the guard. “I’ll take care of him.”
“Get off of me!” Ellison said.
But Disher used the energy to pivot and escort Ellison to the vacant restroom.
Inside: there was a window up in the wall, getting pummeled by pellets of rain. Disher locked the door and went to a urinal. Ellison leaned over the sink, adrenaline coming back to Earth.
“What were you thinking?” he said, staring at his reflection.
“You’re welcome,” Disher said. “And don't start spamming me about colored-only restrooms.”
Ellison splashed his face with water. “I don’t know nothing about colored-only restrooms.”
“That’s the truth. I never stepped foot in one in my life.”
“But you said—”
“I never marched. Never boycotted. The only sit-in I ever did was at home, alone on my couch, when I didn’t feel like being bothered with people. Which was all the damn time.”
Disher washed his hands, keeping his mouth shut.
“Back then I felt like, if I could work hard, make something of myself, anybody could. And everybody blaming racism was just using that as an excuse. I really thought that.”
“Where’s the error?” Disher said. “Race is a social construct. If you don’t believe in ghosts, they can’t attack you.”
“I used to say, ‘I don’t believe in race.’ But see, to say that, I was denying the struggle of the oppressed. Hell, my own struggle! I was in denial of myself.” Ellison turned to Disher. “Look, I know you think this Indivisible Nation Act is the end-all, be-all, but I’m here to tell you, it’s not even close. Racism is grafted into the skin of America. You can’t remove it without spilling a whole lot of blood.”
Disher seemed to consider this, staring up at the window.
“Look at me: I’m 125 years old. Lost my legs in a car crash. Before autonomous cars took over. Didn’t fight for any kind of rights. But here I am, a survivor, and I can’t live with the guilt of doing nothing. I have to resist. I want to make a difference and … I will not let our history get wiped away.”
“History lives on,” Disher said. “Right here.”
Disher pointed to his chest. Ellison figured he was talking about his heart, but all he could see was the shirt flashing Now You See Me then Now You Don't.
The room was silent, except for the patter of heavy rain.
Disher looked at the window again. “Ready to ex outta here?”
“You and me?” Ellison felt a surge of pride, but he knew the weather would force his prosthetics into safe mode. Probably wouldn’t get two blocks. “I don’t know—”
Disher tapped Ellison’s arm. “That was a rhetorical question.”
Ellison chuckled. Took a deep breath. And positioned himself under the window.
Then: Boom! Boom! Boom! On the restroom door.
Ellison's legs held steady under the weight as Disher stood on his shoulders.
Disher opened the window, looked down at Ellison. “You following?”
Ellison heard keys at the door. “You go on. I'll see you on the other side.”
“No you won’t.”
“Go on! I’ll find you—you just go and keep going. And don’t look back, you got me?”
Disher gave him a sad smile. “I got you, legacy.”
The boy pulled himself up, crawled out of the window and into the storm.
When the security guard burst in, the very old man fell to his mechanical joints.
[Starting tomorrow, racism in America will be history!]
Moments later, Ellison came out of the restroom on a stretcher. Eyes heavy. The world fading as a sedative took hold. Body going numb, but he could still feel the weight on his shoulders, where the boy had been standing. An orderly pushed him through the pre-op area. Past the line of drones he gave no damns about. He sacrificed himself to make a difference and nobody could take that away.
“You can’t make me do this!” a woman hollered at reception. A kindred spirit.
As the orderly pushed him through a door and down a white hall, toward the operating rooms, Ellison heard the receptionist over the intercom: “Need a fix on a 406.”
And that was when he saw it. At first he thought it was side effects from the sedative or his old eyes playing tricks on him. But no! There, through the window of a waiting room, he saw a group of kids sitting completely still, their heads plugged into the walls. And one of them, a girl, maybe fifteen, unplugged herself and walked out toward the pre-op area, in the same LED shirt they all wore, flashing Now You See Me then Now You Don't.