My name is Theo, and I'm a resident of Oasis, the last habitable area on Earth. It's meant to be a paradise, a place where we are all content. Vulgarity, violence, insanity, and other ills are but a distant memory, and even death no longer plagues us.
I was once content too, but now I'm different. Now I hear a voice in my head, and she tells me things no imaginary friend should know. Her name is Phoe, and she is my delusion.
Or is she?
Note: This book contains some strong language. We felt it was important for the censorship theme of the novel. If such words offend you, you might not enjoy this book.
Dystopias and tales "after the end" are a common sight in the sci-fi realm—quite a few of the stories in this very bundle take place in whole or in part within such a setting—but what continually intrigues me is just what form that nightmarish "bad future" might take. Oasis plays with the notion, presenting a world devoid of some of the very things we might feel define a dystopia, and making their absence or the attempts to eliminate them the vector through which the darkness of the setting is delivered. Superb. – Joseph R. Lallo
"This book was astonishing from start to finish. Just when you think you've got it figured out, it really throws a curve."– Amazon Review
"Oasis has given me a renewed love for science fiction reads."– Amazon Review
"I literally could not put it down!!"– Amazon Review
Fuck. Vagina. Shit.
I pointedly think these forbidden words, but my neural scan shows nothing out of the ordinary compared to when I think phonetically similar words, such as shuck, angina, or fit. I don't see any evidence of my brain being corrupted, though maybe it's already so damaged that things can't get any worse. Maybe I need another test subject—another 'impressionable' twenty-three-year-old Youth such as myself.
After all, I might be mentally ill.
"Oh, Theo. Not this again," says an overly friendly, high-pitched female voice. "Besides, the words do have an effect on your brain. For instance, the part of your brain responsible for disgust lights up at the mention of 'shit,' yet doesn't for 'fit.'"
This is Phoe speaking. This time, she's not a voice inside my head; instead, it's as though she's in the thick bushes behind me, except there's no one there.
I'm the only person on this strip of grass.
Nobody else comes here because the Edge is only a couple of feet away. Few residents of Oasis like looking at the dreary line dividing where our habitable world ends and the deserted wasteland of the Goo begins. I don't mind it, though.
Then again, I may be crazy—and Phoe would be the reason for that. You see, I don't think Phoe is real. She is, as far as my best guess goes, my imaginary friend. And her name, by the way, is pronounced 'Fee,' but is spelled 'P-h-o-e.'
Yes, that's how specific my delusion is.
"So you go from one overused topic straight into another." Phoe snorts. "My so-called realness."
"Right," I say. Though we're alone, I still answer without moving my lips. "Because I am imagining you."
She snorts again, and I shake my head. Yes, I just shook my head for the benefit of my delusion. I also feel compelled to respond to her.
"For the record," I say, "I'm sure the taboo word 'shit' affects the parts of my brain that deal with disgust just as much as its more acceptable cousins, such as 'fecal matter,' do. The point I was trying to make is that the word doesn't hurt or corrupt my brain. There's nothing special about these words."
"Yeah, yeah." This time, Phoe is inside my head, and she sounds mocking. "Next you'll tell me how back in the day, some of the forbidden words merely referred to things like female dogs, and how there are words in the dead languages that used to be just as taboo, yet they are not currently forbidden because they have lost their power. Then you're likely to complain that, though the brains of both genders are nearly identical, only males are not allowed to say 'vagina,' et cetera."
I realize I was about to counter with those exact thoughts, which means Phoe and I have talked about this quite a bit. This is what happens between close friends: they repeat conversations. Doubly so with imaginary friends, I figure. Though, of course, I'm probably the only person in Oasis who actually has one.
Come to think of it, wouldn't every conversation with your imaginary friend be redundant since you're basically talking to yourself?
"This is my cue to remind you that I'm real, Theo." Phoe purposefully states this out loud.
I can't help but notice that her voice came slightly from my right, as if she's just a friend sitting on the grass next to me—a friend who happens to be invisible.
"Just because I'm invisible doesn't mean I'm not real," Phoe responds to my thought. "At least I'm convinced that I'm real. I would be the crazy one if I didn't think I was real. Besides, a lot of evidence points to that conclusion, and you know it."
"But wouldn't an imaginary friend have to insist she's real?" I can't resist saying the words out loud. "Wouldn't this be part of the delusion?"
"Don't talk to me out loud," she reminds me, her tone worried. "Even when you subvocalize, sometimes you imperceptibly move your neck muscles or even your lips. All those things are too risky. You should just think your thoughts at me. Use your inner voice. It's safer that way, especially when we're around other Youths."
"Sure, but for the record, that makes me feel even nuttier," I reply, but I subvocalize my words, trying my best not to move my lips or neck muscles. Then, as an experiment, I think, "Talking to you inside my head just highlights the impossibility of you and thus makes me feel like I'm missing even more screws."
"Well, it shouldn't." Her voice is inside my head now, yet it still sounds high-pitched. "Back in the day, when it was not forbidden to be mentally ill, I imagine it made people around you uncomfortable if you spoke to your imaginary friends out loud." She chuckles, but there's more worry than humor in her voice. "I have no idea what would happen if someone thought you were crazy, but I have a bad feeling about it, so please don't do it, okay?"
"Fine," I think and pull at my left earlobe. "Though it's overkill to do it here. No one's around."
"Yes, but the nanobots I told you about, the ones that permeate everything from your head to the utility fog, can be used to monitor this place, at least in theory."
"Right. Unless all this conveniently invisible technology you keep telling me about is as much of a figment of my imagination as you are," I think at her. "In any case, since no one seems to know about this tech, how can they use it to spy on me?"
"Correction: no Youth knows, but the others might," Phoe counters patiently. "There's too much we still don't know about Adults, not to mention the Elderly."
"But if they can access the nanocytes in my mind, wouldn't they have access to my thoughts too?" I think, suppressing a shudder. If this is true, I'm utterly screwed.
"The fact that you haven't faced any consequences for your frequently wayward thoughts is evidence that no one monitors them in general, or at least, they're not bothering with yours specifically," she responds, her words easing my dread. "Therefore, I think monitoring thoughts is either computationally prohibitive or breaks one of the bazillion taboos on the proper use of technology—rules I have a very hard time keeping track of, by the way."
"Well, what if using tech to listen in on me is also taboo?" I retort, though she's beginning to convince me.
"It may be, but I've seen evidence that can best be explained as the Adults spying." Her voice in my head takes on a hushed tone. "Just think of the time you and Liam made plans to skip your Physics Lecture. How did they know about that?"
I think of the epic Quietude session we were sentenced to and how we both swore we hadn't betrayed each other. We reached the same conclusion: our speech is not secure. That's why Liam, Mason, and I now often speak in code.
"There could be other explanations," I think at Phoe. "That conversation happened during Lectures, and someone could've overheard us. But even if they hadn't, just because they monitor us during class doesn't mean they would bother monitoring this forsaken spot."
"Even if they don't monitor this place or anywhere outside of the Institute, I still want you to acquire the right habit."
"What if I speak in code?" I suggest. "You know, the one I use with my non-imaginary friends."
"You already speak too slowly for my liking," she thinks at me with clear exasperation. "When you speak in that code, you sound ridiculous and drastically increase the number of syllables you say. Now if you were willing to learn one of the dead languages . . ."
"Fine. I will 'think' when I have to speak to you," I think. Then I subvocalize, "But I will also subvocalize."
"If you must." She sighs out loud. "Just do it the way you did a second ago, without any voice musculature moving."
Instead of replying, I look at the Edge again, the place where the serene greenery under the Dome meets the repulsive ocean of the desolate Goo—the ever-replicating parasitic technology that converts matter into itself. The Goo is what's left of the world outside the Dome barrier, and if the barrier were to ever come down, the Goo would destroy us in short order. Naturally, this view evokes all sorts of unpleasant feelings, and the fact that I'm voluntarily gazing at it must be yet another sign of my shaky mental state.
"The thing is decidedly gross," Phoe reflects, trying to cheer me up, as usual. "It looks like someone tried to make Jell-O out of vomit and human excrement." Then, with a mental snicker, she adds, "Sorry, I should've said 'vomit and shit.'"
"I have no idea what Jell-O is," I subvocalize. "But whatever it is, you're probably spot on regarding the ingredients."
"Jell-O was something the ancients ate in the pre-Food days," Phoe explains. "I'll find something for you to watch or read about it, or if you're lucky, they might serve it at the upcoming Birth Day fair."
"I hope they do. It's hard to learn about food from books or movies," I complain. "I tried."
"In this case, you might," Phoe counters. "Jell-O was more about texture than taste. It had the consistency of jellyfish."
"People actually ate those slimy things back then?" I think in disgust. I can't recall seeing that in any of the movies. Waving toward the Goo, I say, "No wonder the world turned to this."
"They didn't eat it in most parts of the world," Phoe says, her voice taking on a pedantic tone. "And Jell-O was actually made out of partially decomposed proteins extracted from cow and pig hides, hooves, bones, and connective tissue."
"Now you're just trying to gross me out," I think.
"That's rich, coming from you, Mr. Shit." She chuckles. "Anyway, you have to leave this place."
"You have Lectures in half an hour, but more importantly, Mason is looking for you," she says, and her voice gives me the impression she's already gotten up from the grass.
I get up and start walking through the tall shrubbery that hides the Goo from the view of the rest of Oasis Youths.
"By the way"—Phoe's voice comes from the distance; she's simulating walking ahead of me—"once you verify that Mason is looking for you, do try to explain how an imaginary friend like me could possibly know something like that . . . something you yourself didn't know."