Esmerelda Lollipop was as ridiculous-looking as her name sounded. She was built that way on purpose, back when people still cared about what things looked like and absorbed information based on visual cues. There used to be competition in the mass media industry — there were choices, and Information Corp of Engineers was another willing capture “opportunity” offered by the Enforcers to Information Specialists during the Phasing. They offered access to the internal motherboard and an indestructible body built like a brick shithouse, with her choice of color scheme and dimensions. She was a 22 year-old Zone Information Specialist, and completely terrified of the changes taking place during Phase 1. She had absolutely no other skills the Enforcers were interested in, and knew because she was young and healthy, she’d be sent to the factories to churn out Zombie Chow. Emily Larson of Zone 1 News underwent the necessary changes and downloads to become Esmerelda Lollipop, ICE unit #243.
There were only 250 ICEs made. The Enforcers were quickly able to control the flow of information and needed fewer and fewer units as apathy grew and people agreed to accept what was fed to them. Visual cues became less important as uploads and direct mind feeds replaced choices, and with more than half the human population of earth dead and the other half existing on Zombie Chow, controlling the masses was easy.
Like half-chips, ICE units were quickly aware of their grave error in judgment, but upgrades to their systems soon wiped the notion of right and wrong, along with any other human traits, from memory banks. ICEs’ function became ultimately nothing more than as talking heads, regurgitating whatever sound byte Enforcement had approved for their broadcast. Also like the half-chips, ICE unit phasing was done quickly, and mistakes were made. Esmerelda Lollipop was one of those mistakes.
Emily Larson didn’t get to choose her path. Her father saw the changes coming. He had begun preparing her at the beginning, when the heroin epidemic took hold and mass media factions began running the world. She was eight years old when the World Government, or what was left of it, openly admitted control of the heroin trade and began what was to eventually be known as “willing capture,” by initiating Workforce programs. Month after month, thousands of addicts would sign away their rights and agree to trade work hours for a steady, clean fix.
The numbers soon overwhelmed the ability to provide enough heroin — pharmaceuticals were employed, and tweaked for cost effectiveness, which was never achieved. The decision to create a bad batch and kill off enough users to regain control of the Workforce population was not only successful in numbers they hadn’t imagined, it inadvertently created a strain of chemically altered undead, and the zombies were born.
The formulators and chemistry wizards weren’t prepared for the possibility of a being so driven to seek a chemical alteration that it continued to function past the human capabilities of mind and body. It was actually a testament to the success of their drugs that a body cease the need to breathe, and a brain cease focus on anything other than finding and consuming the chemical it is saturated in.
Half the zombies died before they realized the beauty of having undead addicts. They processed the chemicals much more slowly, they were cheaper to keep, even with the additives necessary to preserve the human flesh left of them, and keep them intact enough to work. Zombie Chow became a staple of life, and a lucrative business in the pharmaceutical and carbon trade industry. The New World Government prospered, and gained more control with every bag manufactured.
Emily’s father was a farmer, his approved acreage was heavily regulated, as farming required Certified Air. His farm was one of the first to be phased into a zone on the outskirts of a CA region. The vast tract of family land was one of the last to be sanctioned. The remote location remained outside of the grids and surveys for years before the sanctioning began. He spent the time in interim preparing his daughter for what he knew would be dark days ahead.
Bill Larson taught Emily to defend herself in a physical fight, but he knew these things would eventually be residual memories he could only hope she passed on to any human beings who might survive the Phasing. Bill knew Emily’s mind was the only thing she had to rely on, it’s all that would be left in the end.
Emily learned by watching her father conform to approved farming policies that playing the game allowed him freedom to keep his own plants in a greenhouse on the far end of the property, without the watchful eye and approved additives mandated for public safety and mass consumption. Bill fed himself and Emily from these plants; he knew it would allow his daughter to have a chemically sound mind before her changes were implemented, and give her a chance to retain the slightest bit of her human self.
The zones maintained as much of a normal flow as possible during the initial changes. Media was allowed to function as long as messages were approved — entertainment was still necessary for a small number of the population. Knowledge of trades was still necessary; zombies could work, but required direction. People remained necessary, and were kept in a bubble of control, thinly disguised as public safety to those who could still think for themselves. The majority of chaos was maintained and controlled just like the zombies, with a steady diet of chemically altered food and an atmosphere of fear outside the zones, which provided comfort, protection and the promise of Certified Air.
Emily met LaRonda Pettibone on her first trip to the Air Exchange with her father. LaRonda was the only hauler he would deal with. Bill learned the schedules early on, and after two violations with un-trained haulers, he made sure to rotate his Air Exchange schedule to coincide with hers. He wanted no reason to have the Inspectors at his AE. This was before half-chips and inspectors were fully human and wholly corrupt. Their corruption encouraged the general idea that half-chips were necessary, again, for public safety.
By the time Emily was old enough to drive her father’s Air Exchange unit, she and LaRonda were fast friends and Emily looked forward to hearing about the other zones, fascinated with the thought of places existing without Certified Air. Emily also knew to always give LaRonda the clipboard with seeds hidden under the paperwork, as she knew that LaRonda would return an identical clipboard, with different seeds hidden beneath identical paperwork.
Bill knew when the “accidents” at Air Exchange units began happening, the last human freedoms were going to be regulated to extinction. He knew because he wasn’t surviving on the newly formulated Zombie Chow, approved and suggested for all species, and he had been to the Air Exchange and knew the accidents weren’t possible. He also knew plants didn’t need Certified Air, his greenhouse on the far end of the property proved it. Water was the problem, and ninety-nine percent of the water was owned and filtered for safety by the government. It was carefully designated and accounted for. A small spring in the uncharted territory beyond the zone supplied a tiny creek that ran through Bill’s land, it had been undetected in the water surveys, and he had never reported it. He watered his greenhouse plants with un-filtered water and grew them in un-certified air and he and Emily were living proof it wouldn’t kill you to eat them.
The day they announced the intent to implement half-chip prototypes at all Air Exchange stations, Bill knew it was time to send his daughter to a Higher Learning Camp. It would in-debt her to the government, but it would allow her access to choices when the phasing came. It would also allow her contact to other human beings, which was quickly becoming difficult to do. LaRonda was one of the few un-enhanced human drivers on AE anymore, and the zombies had been tweaked to a pretty good level of preservation. There were rumors of them inter-breeding with enhanced humans, although Bill had never seen any evidence of it. Actual contact with drivers was no longer allowed, everything was now done on auto-command and all communication was via tablet and monitored for any alterations in context, which prohibited approved conversation beyond Air Exchange. For safety. And isolation.
The day Bill sent Emily off to Information Specialist camp, he dismantled the greenhouse and began eating approved Zombie Chow, so he could enjoy the short amount of time left he would have with his own thoughts to watch his daughter deliver approved news in a haze of chemically induced euphoria. Six days after Emily became a fully accredited Information Specialist for Zone 1, Bill Larson walked off the edge of the zone, and disappeared into un-approved areas, void of Certified Air.