From the author: After the great Conflagration that brought an end to the Plastic Age, a citizen of the Progressors' Enlightenment discovers that the past isn't what he's been taught it was.
C. L. Werner
He could hear the loathsome reptile’s claws scratching across the cement floor as it crawled through the shadows. Its purple tongue would be flicking from its scaly jaws, dancing before its snout as it tasted the air and picked his scent from the thousand stenches in the protein production plant. The creature didn’t need to see him, didn’t need to hear him. It would find him by his smell, the smell that had betrayed him to Omega-Four’s omnipresent sentinel drones, had announced that he was no longer a drug-dulled cog in the machinery of the Dome. He was an Aberrant, aware and awake. Perhaps alone among ten million inhabitants, he knew.
Javier Nine-three-six pressed himself still closer to the cold porcelain casing of the algae vat, clinging to the hope that the pungent stink of slime and water would conceal his presence. The red glow of an emergency lamp served to illuminate the narrow pathway between the vats employed by cultivation automs to nurture the crop through its gestation until it was ready to be harvested by human farmers.
The robots were silent now, frozen in place when Section Security had pursued Javier into the facility. From his position, Javier could see them standing upon the observation deck, intimidating in their black coveralls, heavy neuro-tasers clenched in their gloved hands. They were waiting for the synzards to ferret out his hiding place. Then the officers would move in, converge upon his position and use their electrified batons to subdue him.
Re-education. Javier shuddered as he thought about what that meant. He would no longer be awake and aware. He would no longer know. He would be like the other ten million denizens of the Dome, an oblivious and obedient mechanism in the machine. The worst thing was he wouldn’t even understand what had been done to him.
As the scratch of reptilian claws drew nearer, Javier’s hand tightened about the piece of alloy he had pried from one of the deactivated automs. Even now, he felt the urge to submit meekly, to give himself up to the dictates burned into his brain by a life of genetic, cultural and chemical conditioning. It took every ounce of his newfound will to resist the urge. He would not surrender! They would not take him back; smother his identity with medications and psychotherapy. Seeing, he would not be led back into the darkness.
The stink of the synzard’s musk was close now. Javier could hear the rasp of its flickering tongue against its scaly jaws. He felt doubt gnaw at the very core of his being. Could he really do this? It was one thing to run away, but it was another thing entirely to descend into violence! Certainly the synzard was just a lab-grown gene-organism, but even so it had life. Did he have any right to strike out at that life?
Javier trembled at the awfulness of such a thought. If he allowed himself to strike at the reptile, might he not do violence to the Section Security officers? What justified him in such a terrible course of action? Was his new sense of identity and freedom worth descending into the barbarism of tribals?
What had set him upon this course, turned him from a docile cog to an Aberrant? The answer to that came easier to Javier than the morality of the path he had followed since.
There was a musty, unkempt odour about the tiny habitation unit, the smell of old things kept well beyond their usefulness, the stink of reclusive decay. It was an odour that was, perhaps, sensed more by the brain than the nose, making its ugliness felt despite the thick layers of rubber and plastic that smothered the faces of the men working amid the hoarded clutter which filled the little room.
Javier Nine-three-six shook his head as he pulled down a pile of dust and neglect, watching as it smacked against a similar pile and sent both of them crashing against the wall. He felt a confused medley of pity and disgust as he watched the detritus collapse into the narrow little walkway. It was such a wasteful, primitive sight, all those sheets of organic material smashed and pressed into thin little pages. A barbaric reminder from a less-enlightened age when men abused their world with reckless abandon. They had butchered entire forests to feed into their printing presses, churning out tons of disposable text in the name of consumerism and short-sighted greed.
The world had suffered for such greed, driven to the brink of destruction by the excesses of a society governed by materialism and selfishness. The men of the Plastic Age had poisoned the earth with toxins, turned the oceans filthy with rubbish, filled the skies with pollutants. It was not to be wondered that their society had crumbled in the furnace of the Conflagration, an ecological catastrophe that had driven three quarters of the planet’s species to extinction before its violence had been expended.
It was depressing to think of all that had been lost in the holocaust of the Conflagration, yet from that climatic upheaval had come human enlightenment, a new wisdom that stripped away the base impulses and petty desires of tribal man. The men of the Reborn Era were unified, governed by reason and logic, sharing a sense of common purpose and motivated to serve society rather than warp it towards their own selfish demands. The invisible tyranny of tradition and culture had been cast away, replaced with a true liberation of mind and body that could be bestowed only by the unbiased principles of science.
Javier smiled sadly as he looked about the little habitation unit with its clutter. There were always those who couldn’t function in society. The loners who existed on the fringes, unable to adapt to the modern world. Doctors spoke of mental aberrations and chemical imbalances, genetic atavisms that would, one day, be overcome through the development of new drugs. Until then, however, such people would persist, pitiable recluses clinging to the bones of the past.
Javier brought the scoop of his shovel under the heap of fallen books, lifting them from the floor and casting them into the churning jaws of the mobile recycler. The mouldy old rubbish would be ground down into its constituent elements, treated with chemical baths that would render it into viable protein for the Dome’s algae ponds. From useless clutter, the old junk would be transformed into sustenance for Omega-Four’s ten million inhabitants.
As he watched the recycler grind down the hard edges of the clapboard spines, Javier reflected on his vocation in Reclamations. It was a curious job, one that perhaps wasn’t as fulfilling as most, being dependent upon antisocial eccentricities. Instead of helping to advance mankind, Javier thought of himself as a bulwark against a slow slide back into the materialism that had nearly eradicated civilization. It might be a grandiose conception of what amounted to being a garbage collector, but it gave him a feeling of purpose.
His shovel dipped into the musty heap, but as he raised it towards the jaws of the recycler, Javier noticed the lettering on one of the spines. A flicker of curiosity flared up inside his brain and, after a moment of indecision, he lowered the shovel. Javier wiped the dust from the book as he held it up. He hadn’t been mistaken; the book’s spine did identify it as The Hound of the Baskervilles. A smile flashed across his face as he leafed through the book, enjoying the old illustrations scattered among the text. Sherlock Holmes was his favourite fictional subject. He’d referenced the stories and films many times when he was linked to the Interface, enough so that he could conjure the stories almost from memory.
Javier looked around the habitation unit, a new feeling of pity rising within him. The book was a relic from a time when there was no Interface, when people had been compelled to accumulate material units in order to reference information and entertainment. Wood-pulp books, crystal discs, petrol and plastic tapes, silicate drives, there had been so many ways people had been forced to gather primitive data assemblies. It was so much more efficient now, a single Interface maintained for the edification of all people rather than individual hoardings that could be consulted only by physical proximity.
The discovery of a Sherlock Holmes book gave Javier an inkling of sympathy for the reclusive Aberrant who had once lived here. He felt sad that they had descended into such a state, shunning the conventions and advances of modern society to indulge atavistic attachments to physical possessions. It was a sobering thought to consider that the Aberrant had enjoyed some of the same things Javier enjoyed. It injected a human quality, a sense of kinship to what had been moments before nothing more than a faceless pariah.
The insistent beep of the idle recycler dragged Javier from his ruminations. Who the Aberrant had been wasn’t any concern to him. He had a job to do and if he didn’t want to fall behind, then he had to hurry. Machines might be allowed to labour around the clock but men were permitted only six hours of labour in a cycle. If his work wasn’t done within his shift, then another Reclamations officer would have to be detached to complete it for him. Javier had too much pride to allow that kind of embarrassment to afflict his performance.
On a whim, instead of dropping the book back into the shovel’s scoop, Javier stuck it in the pocket of his coverall. He knew it was juvenile of him – and he would certainly be laughed at by his co-workers should they learn of it – but somehow the idea of consigning Sherlock Holmes to the churning maw of the recycler was offensive. He would take the book with him at the end of his shift, a keepsake of sorts. After all, one souvenir would hardly make him an atavistic hoarder.
At end of shift, Javier Nine-three-six strolled through the simulation at the centre of his neighbourhood, dialling the sequence of his neural feed so that his mind would interpret the simulation’s transmissions as an urban park complete with singing birds and a cool breeze. The smell of fresh cut grass and blooming flowers filled his lungs as his feet crunched against the grit of simulated gravel. He could see other people walking through the zone and idly he wondered whether any of them were dialled into the same simulation as himself. Short of intruding upon their experience and asking them directly there was no way to know, so Javier restrained his curiosity. Inquisitiveness was never an excuse to disrupt privacy and especially in a place like the simulation.
Javier stepped away from the gravel path to stare up at a hoary old oak tree, its branches leaning out over the path, its trunk painted white as a preventative against insects. The simulation was very exacting in its details, even guarding the images against non-existent parasites. Javier’s heart went cold as he considered how appropriate the term non-existent was. There were no termites anymore, not real ones. Neither was the great and mighty oak still to be found outside a few horticultural preservation reserves. Once there had been great forests of the trees, but those had been gutted by the greed of Smoke Age industry and what little had been left had been squandered during the excesses of the Plastic Age. It was a wonder any seeds had endured through the Conflagration to be nurtured by botanists of the Enlightenment. One small triumph against the vast extinctions ushered in by the collapse of the Plastic Age.
The simulated oak was more impressive than the seedlings in the reserves. It might be only a sensory impression, an apparition fabricated by an information feed, but it was real enough for Javier. Some of the Domes, the first to rise after the Conflagration, didn’t have simulations like Omega-Four’s zone. They had archaic gardens filled with botanical gene-orgs, synthetically engineered plant replicants that in the Plastic Age would have been branded and patented as GMO products. In the Reborn Era, such organisms belonged to all mankind, not the selfish interests of a tyrannical elite.
A wave of depression rushed through Javier as he thought about those long-dead despots, the shadowy cabal of men who had aggrandized themselves with titles like Banker, Lawyer, Entrepreneur, Politician, Industrialist, and Globalist. Those titles were strange to Javier and the inhabitants of the Dome, as meaningless and esoteric as an ancient fable told in a foreign tongue. No one could say what those men had been like, what sort of thoughts had governed them. That they had been illogical and sociopathic was evident from the legacy they had left behind. Their greed had ushered in the Conflagration and the climatic upheaval that had nearly annihilated civilization and cast man back into a new Stone Age. To sate their own lust for prestige and position, they had been willing to destroy the world – just as long as the consequences of their greed fell onto the shoulders of their descendants long after their own time was past.
It was a mindset Javier couldn’t understand, so alien to him that he could only pity the unbalanced men who had been afflicted by such madness. In the Plastic Age, there had been no structure to differentiate between balance and aberrancy, even less had there been any way to correct the Aberrant and make them productive contributors to society. The Enlightenment had brought the wisdom and knowledge to do both. The Aberrant could be discovered before their defects could corrupt the individual or become detrimental to society. Those chemical and genetic imbalances could be corrected through medication, healing the imperfections to make the person whole and clean.
The world had suffered enough from the greed of Aberrants.
Javier felt tears growing in his eyes, his emotional state becoming moribund as he considered how greatly the planet had suffered. Depression was a condition that was counter-productive and contributed to inefficiency. At the earliest age, children were instructed in how to fend off such debilitating moods, a knowledge that continued to serve them into maturity. As he felt the emotion settling more firmly about him, Javier reached into the breast pouch of his coverall to remove the little capsule of blue pills. Blue Twenty was a fast-acting restorative, prescribed for those whose disposition lent to depressions and melancholy. From his sixth year, his first away from the juvenile dormitory and his first attending the internment-school, Javier had been prescribed Blue Twenty to amend the weakness in his emotional constitution. He still carried a balance with the Health and Welfare Bureau which had subsidized his medications in his pre-employment stages, a payroll deduction at the end of each month slowly eating away at that debt.
In reaching for his pills, Javier’s hand brushed against the stiff spine of the book he had removed from the habitation unit. A sudden impulse made him draw it from his pocket, forgetting for the moment the blue pills. He felt a twinge of amusement tug at his face as he stared down at the familiar illustration on the cover, the black image of a hound. How many times had his mind registered that impression when he accessed the Interface? After so many years, it was like looking into the face of an old friend.
Glancing about, watching the other citizens strolling through the simulation, Javier experienced a moment of self-consciousness. There was nothing illegal about possessing physical text, but it did carry a social stigma, regarded as both improper and immoral. Sometimes, motivated by a perverse impulse to shock their associates, someone might seek out the grey dealers who sold such materials, but it was done more from a sense of being naughty than any real affection for the object itself.
Despite his appreciation for how ridiculous the very concept of physical text was in a society that could access the Interface at any time, Javier couldn’t shake a genuine attachment to the book he held. More than an adolescent thrill of naughtiness, he appreciated the book for what it was. He knew none of his associates would appreciate that feeling, certainly his partner Alexander Two-six-five would think him peculiar for such an impulse. Alexander already thought Javier a bit off-kilter for being satisfied with a position in Reclamations rather than aspiring towards a career in Engineering or Design. Devoting serious thought to a bit of physical text salvaged from an Aberrant hoarder would only bolster that opinion of him.
Javier had half made up his mind to sell the book to a grey dealer he knew in the Third District when he flipped the volume open. It was a page chosen utterly at random, and at first Javier didn’t notice what was wrong. There was an illustration, one of the Sidney Paget pictures he remembered so well. Or at least thought he remembered. The picture was that moment when Sir Henry Baskerville, driven by crude biological impulses, made his assault upon Miss Stapleton’s person. The image was quite striking, representing as it did the baser instincts of the tribals and how those instincts would denigrate and oppress the female sex. As he remembered it, the picture displayed Sir Henry reduced to an almost semi-human brute by the disruptive impulse, Miss Stapleton trying to drive him away with a desperate vitality born from the anguished offence stamped upon her face.
Here, however, it was a quite different image. There was no atavistic devolution of Sir Henry’s bearing and countenance. Miss Stapleton was almost genteel in her effort to hold back his advance, her face not contorted with fear and injured pride, but rather presenting a downcast expression of remorseful resignation. If not for the small image of Mr Stapleton running along with his butterfly net in the background, Javier might have doubted this was indeed the same moment in the story or the same illustration. How could he have so dramatically misremembered it? If there was one aspect of his person that Javier considered a strength, it was his exacting memory for detail.
A moment of consideration brought an easy answer to Javier’s mind. The ‘book’ was in fact nothing but some crude attempt by a grey dealer to make a quick credit by preying on the gullibility of an atavism desperate to gather more objects for their hoard. It wasn’t uncommon for dealers to manufacture their own specimens of physical text, and rarely with the exacting consultation of the Interface that would be required to produce an accurate representation. What he had here was nothing more than some cheap simulacrum.
Only the understanding that the book would be more useful processed and recycled kept Javier from tossing it into the nearest rubbish bin. Disgusted, he looked at it again, flipping it open to that point where Holmes and Watson discover the body of the outcast Selden on the moor. Here he was in for another surprise, for in discussing Selden, the detective and his partner spoke of the man as a criminal and murderer. Javier was certain such was not the case. Selden, he remembered, was a fugitive forced into hiding because of his defiance of the oppressive Tribalist regime which dominated Britannia in the Smoke Age. Holmes had spoken of him as a heroic and tragic personage, not as a mentally unbalanced sociopath!
Javier nearly dropped the book in disgust. How could any dealer no matter how slipshod make such an error? What exactly was this noxious bit of physical text he had preserved from the recycler?
Again, he was on the verge of casting the book from him, a tremor of unaccountable fear slithering through his veins. Curiosity, nagging and compelling, restrained him. Javier wondered what else was wrong with the book. Yes, he decided, he would keep the thing and consult the Interface. He’d compare the two versions and see for himself how grossly this shabby copy had strayed from the story proper.
As he extracted himself from the simulation and made his way along the conveyor-walk to his habitation unit, Javier couldn’t shake that impression of danger, that little chill of fear that gnawed at his gut. It was his first intimation that something was wrong and that by merest chance he had stumbled upon a discovery that would change him forever.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was the beginning. Javier read the curious physical text edition from cover to cover, restraining his revulsion at the outrageous alterations only through a supreme effort of will. He was alarmed to find the story so changed and altered. To be certain, the basic thrust of the narrative was the same; murder wrapped under the cloak of superstition, but virtually all the small details had been changed. Holmes and Watson were merely friends, not partners. Barrymore the butler was married – that peculiar old concept of female suppression by a male keeper – to the sister of Selden and their actions in providing for the fugitive stemmed not from respect and sympathy for his fight against Tribalist tyranny but rather from what amounted to tribal affiliations of shared lineage and emotional connections at odds with their feelings of social duty. The murderous Stapleton proved to be a more scientifically minded personage, driven to commit his deeds solely for material gain rather than out of some Religist effort to contaminate the region with superstition and curb any doubts among the populace about their Tribalist rulers and the Religist dogma that empowered them. Indeed, in this version Stapleton was exploiting the Tribalist concepts of lineage and heritage in an effort to secure Baskerville Hall for himself.
The more Javier read, the more impressed he became with the degree to which the story had been adjusted. The core was still there, the characters were still there, but around everything there had been fabricated a very different context. The societal and cultural mores were alien to those of the Enlightenment.
Javier resisted where that train of thought must lead him. Deep inside him, he felt a consuming horror for the monstrous idea that had blossomed in his mind. He expended every effort to deny its poisonous reasoning, fighting it with such despair that he soon became physically ill and had to be convalesced from his duties with Reclamations.
It was while he was convalescing, dutifully taking the medicines prescribed to help him recover – and at the same time avoiding the blue pills which might interfere with the other prescription – that Javier reached the conclusion that he had tried so desperately to deny. The physical text wasn’t a crude forgery. The truth was far more monstrous. The book represented the real words of Conan Doyle – heralded by the Tribalist title of Sir Arthur in the physical text – and what could be accessed by billions of citizens through the Interface was the fake.
As he lay upon his bed, Alexander having relocated to other quarters during his illness, Javier considered how such a monstrous thing could be perpetrated. Was the book he had encountered simply an isolated example or was it but a sampling of a much wider pandemic. Was it possible that the whole of the Interface had been corrupted, all the literature of the past amended and adjusted, expanded and contracted until it conformed to the mores and values of the programmers who maintained the Interface?
The prospect was as hideous as anything Javier could contemplate, all the more because such a conspiracy on so vast a scale could only be conducted with the collusion of the governing councils, those men of progressive logic who had lifted mankind from the rubble of the Conflagration into the Enlightenment. The idea that these great men might lend their sanction to the deliberate adjustment of literature, the excision of anything that did not reflect the values and morals of the Enlightenment, the designed insertion of passages to conform to the modern view…
Or was it more than that? Perhaps through the manipulation of literature the Progressors had done more than just make the works of the past conform to their vision of the future. Through their manipulation, hadn’t they killed the very ideas that might threaten that vision? The Reborn was a time of limitless freedom, unfettered by the thousands of prejudices and judgements of past eras, yet if no ideas were permitted to be expounded beyond what would conform to the Enlightenment, then wasn’t that freedom simply an illusion?
It was tempting for Javier to dismiss the frightening prospect. After all, why would the Progressors bother about literature at all. The written word was a commodity only a very small percentage within the Dome cared about. The domains of the Interface devoted to music and film, game and simulation, enjoyed far more consultations than that devoted simply to text. It was, in a very real sense, nothing but an antiquated style of communication that had been superseded by far more immersive formats. Why would anyone bother with text when there were so many other forms of communication that influenced a far greater number of the population?
As he tried to dismiss the conspiracy, a new thought rose to send a chill through Javier’s body. What was there to say that whoever had manipulated the text domain hadn’t also manipulated the areas for music and film? If there was a deliberate effort to eradicate all dissenting ideas, it would be essential that the effort be utterly thorough. How could he know if a Plastic Age movie hadn’t been altered, dialogue amended and adjusted to reflect the changing attitudes of the Enlightenment? How could he know if an actor hadn’t been digitally replaced, new scenes added or old ones stripped away? The lyrics in a song might be distorted, their original meaning perverted into an echo of the Progressors’ design.
Javier tried to tell himself these thoughts were nothing but feverish imaginings. Yet deep inside himself, a chord had been struck. The longer he went without the blue pills, the more certain he felt his growing fear was justified.
After his recovery, Javier carried a terrible secret inside him, one that he knew he couldn’t confide to anyone, not even Alexander. At best, he would be thought an atavism, but more likely he would be viewed as a full Aberrant and removed from society for treatment and re-education. That didn’t sound as helpful and beneficent as it once had, because bit by bit he was losing the naivety, the blind trust in government that had been imprinted upon him almost from his first steps at the incubation dorm.
He continued his vocation in Reclamations, but now he did so with a new awareness of what he was doing. He wasn’t recycling out-dated clutter; he was destroying ideas that were inconvenient to the Enlightenment. When he could, Javier would steal a book from the recyclers, bearing it away with him to his habitation unit for consultation. Invariably, he found the physical text didn’t match the purported version that could be consulted through the Interface.
Bit by bit, Javier began to understand that the Interface wasn’t a convenient instrument of entertainment and education. It was a tool to help perpetrate a tyranny more monstrous than anything from the Plastic Age, a despotism all the more terrible because it went unnoticed and unseen by the populace. An invisible tyranny that controlled its subjects not through force and martial domination, but through the very thoughts inside the brains of its slaves. By eliminating exposure to any idea that didn’t conform to their vision for mankind, the Progressors could reshape society into their own image. By stigmatizing physical copies of text and film as wasteful atavism, using Reclamations to acquire and dispose of them as opportunity presented itself, they could conceal the true nature of the Interface. There was no need for force, not when they had already engineered a society that would castigate and marginalize those who would seriously pursue antiquated forms of media. They could simply sit back and allow Reclamations to slowly whittle away at the dwindling supply of physical media.
Logically, the Interface had been corrupted in the same way. A single passage changed here, a line of dialogue there, a shift in motivation to a character in still another place. All subtle, all gradual. Nothing too alarming. Nothing that would immediately draw attention – just slight changes that the Interface consultant might put down to mistaken memories. How gradual it must have been, year by year chipping away at the originals until they became mirrors for the Enlightenment. How inhumanly patient the Progressors must have been!
In a pre-Conflagration volume of Plastic Age history, Javier ran across a quotation attributed to that arch-tyrant of the Plastic Age, Chancellor Adolf. ‘History is what the winners write’ had been the quotation, explained in the book as his moralization of the genocide programs engineered by his regime. Vilified in the Enlightenment as an example of Plastic Age tribalism and fanaticism, there were elements of Chancellor Adolf’s regime that hadn’t been a segment of the modern education uplinks. Elements that, no doubt, echoed a bit too cleanly the ideology of the Progressors and which would have been embarrassing to have echoed by one of history’s great monsters.
As he acquired more and more books, Javier’s habitation unit began to resemble that of an atavistic hoarder. Alexander departed after an unsuccessful effort to get Javier to abandon his curious obsession. His partner even went so far as to take his symptoms to a doctor and acquire a new prescription for Javier, but Alexander’s efforts were futile. Javier had stopped taking the blue pills, taking the new purple ones wasn’t an option. After a final row, Alexander had left.
Strangely, the departure of his partner made little impact on Javier. Perhaps as a consequence of what he was coming to view as a new mental awakening, he had felt his emotions towards Alexander growing detached. As he’d been exposed to the morals and beliefs of the past, Javier had started to doubt everything about the present. Past society had been founded upon marriage, something that the Enlightenment vilified as an instrument of sexual oppression and inequality as well as a key contributory to biological confusion and tribal perpetuation. The overpopulation that had been the leading cause of the Conflagration was blamed upon these primitive and animalistic concepts.
Yet to what degree had the Enlightenment gone to engineer the root of overpopulation from society? As much as anything else, had they gone and tried to manipulate the heart against the natural desires of the individual? Through what extremes had they employed to ensure there was no unsanctioned procreation among the subjects of the Dome? What measures had they taken to remove the distinct characteristics of the old tribal nations, eliminated the old physiognomy that had made different breeds of men? The old tribal concept of family had been replaced with harvest farms where seed and egg were collected as needed from pre-selected citizens, fertilized within machines by an automated process. Viable infants were reared in incubators then sent along to dormitories before education in the schools. At every level, the only parent a citizen possessed was the state itself.
In the face of such monstrosity, how could Javier trust his own feelings? Were they even his own or had they been implanted in him by the Progressors, nurtured in his mind by the information they allowed him to access, by the environment they allowed him to experience, by the genetically-modified foods they allowed him to ingest and by the medications they employed to adjust his biology. Was any of it real? Did any of it belong to him or was it all only the lie they expected him to conform to?
Continuing his researches, Javier had found his speculations becoming ever more terrifying. Stumbling upon physical text relating to the final years of the Plastic Age, he began to wonder about the mindless greed of the old autocrats who had driven civilization to the brink of destruction. Had they truly been mindless, so blind to their selfish ends that they couldn’t appreciate what they were doing to the planet and to society? Or had they too been manipulated, guided by those who saw a need to tear down what had been in order to recreate it as the Enlightenment? The Progressors had been there, after the Conflagration, with the answers that would save mankind from extinction. What if they were the same force responsible for the destruction that had brought that calamity bearing down upon humanity? A conclave hidden and unguessed, manipulating the world through proxies, fragmenting society into little factions that would bicker among themselves while their real enemy conducted its campaign unhindered. Pollution, over-population, deforestation, all the hundreds of other problems that the Plastic Age had been aware of yet chose to do nothing about until that final climactic upheaval that brought their world down in ruins.
To be rebuilt in the Enlightenment by the very men who had destroyed it.
Huddled in the protein production plant, Javier realized the mistake he had made. It hadn’t been his slow accumulation of physical text or his increased use of the Interface that had brought him to the attention of Section Security. Those hadn’t marked him as an Aberrant and a potential threat to the invisible tyranny of the Dome.
No, he had given himself away when he had stopped taking the blue pills and the dozens of other medications prescribed for him, drugs designed to maintain him as docile and compliant. He had continued to fill his prescriptions, stowing the pills away in his habitation unit. According to the data stream, he was still adhering to his physician minders. However, he hadn’t taken into account what physiological changes absence of the drugs might cause. To be certain there were uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, but these he had been careful to suppress when out in public, succeeding to such a degree that he doubted anyone could detect when he experienced them.
His self-control, however, wasn’t enough to deceive a machine. The hovering sentinel drones which patrolled the avenues of the Dome and kept it safe for its inhabitants weren’t deceived. Javier knew that the first time he suffered a sudden fit of itching on his way out of the simulation. A sleek grey sentinel had descended from an altitude of some hundred metres to hover a dozen or so above him. He could see the optic package slung underneath its stubby nose rotating about, fixing him with its dark lenses. The drone dropped another six metres and a panel opened in its side, displaying a triangular filtration system and the rotating blades of a fan. As the blades began to whirl, Javier knew that the sentinel drone had detected something wrong with him and was now making an effort to draw his chemical signature into its filtration system.
Staring up at the drone, Javier had done the worst thing he could. He had run. Almost immediately, the drone had started emitting a high-pitched wail, shifting about on its rotors and pursuing him across the simulation. A human pursuer might have been distracted by the transmissions of the zone, but the machine wasn’t attuned to such frequencies. Straight as an arrow, it sped after Javier, chasing him down the next avenue and through the intersection beyond.
It wasn’t long before other drones began to join the chase, blaring their alarm sirens, clearing the streets of citizens to better expose the Aberrant they had detected. Javier’s faculties, his reasoning, crumbled beneath the primal impulse of a hunted animal. He had to flee, had to escape. The drones kept on his trail, giving him no respite, no opportunity to stop and think and plan. Had the machines been so equipped, Javier could have been captured right there in the street, but the drones were designed only to detect. Apprehension was left to the men of Section Security.
With three drones hovering about him, trying to herd him like a Smoke Age steer, Javier saw the armoured transport come trundling down the street, the gold emblem of Section Security emblazoned across its face and sides. The tank growled to a stop, the doors in its sides opening like steel irises, disgorging its occupants.
Javier’s pulse was like thunder in his ears as he saw the black-uniformed troopers emerge from the transport, their gloves wrapped about the aluminoid stocks of their neuro-tasers. Three of the officers carried the control rods for a half-dozen synzards, immense five-foot long reptiles, their bodies encased in the blocky constraints of thermo-vests. Genetically engineered for their function, the synzards were controlled by the vests; when speed and action were demanded the vests could be made to generate heat, when the reptiles were required to be docile the vests would turn cold and put the synzards into a sluggish stupor.
There was nothing sluggish about the hulking two-metre long reptiles as they turned towards him, their tongues flicking from between their jaws. Javier hadn’t considered until that moment how eliminating the drugs from his system might have affected his scent. Just as the drones had noticed the alteration in his chemical signature, now the synzards were picking up his changed scent. They would be able to use it to pursue him, just as pre-Conflagration man had employed extinct canids to hunt.
One of the troopers called for Javier to surrender himself, promising that he wouldn’t be harmed. The officer claimed that Javier was sick and needed help, that Section Security was only there to prevent him from hurting anyone. There was no threat, no attempt at coercion. Just an appeal to his sense of community and society, an effort to make him understand that he needed to be adjusted so he was no longer Aberrant. It occurred to Javier that even the troopers were blind to the invisible shackles they wore, that they truly believed the words they called out to him.
Better to be Aberrant than blind! Before the thermo-vests could grow warm enough to rouse the synzards to their full awareness, before the troopers could get close enough to turn their neuro-tasers against him, Javier was dashing down the avenue again, darting beneath the hull of a hovering drone, the draft from its rotors plucking at his clothes as he rushed beneath the machine.
Escape was foremost in his thoughts, but to do that he needed to elude the synzards. Javier racked his brain for a way to deceive the reptiles’ sense of smell. Sighting the protein processing plant had given him the idea that the pungent stench of the facility would confound the animals while the sound of the automs inside would conceal him from the detectors of the hovering drones.
The rasp of the synzard’s tongue as it crept closer drove Javier Nine-three-six into action. Sweat dripping down his brow, his heart hammering in his chest, sickness boiling up in the pit of his belly, Javier reared up from his place of concealment and brought the heavy strip of alloy smashing down into the reptile’s flat head. The weapon smacked into the brute’s skull with a meaty impact, tearing the layer of scales and sending a thin trickle of blood dripping across the floor. The synzard stared up at him with dull black eyes, its tongue still flickering from between its jaws, its tiny brain trying to understand that it had been struck.
Javier tightened his grip on the piece of scrap and brought it crashing down once more. This time the synzard made a low umph and sagged to the floor, its tail lashing about furiously behind it. The brute’s attacker stared down in disgust at what he had done, horrified at the blood coating his weapon, the gore spattering his coveralls. With a moan of anguish, he dropped the strip of alloy and set off running.
To either side of him, Javier could hear the other synzards chasing after him. Not the slow, almost lethargic plod they had exhibited when stalking him among the vats. This was different, almost like a spastic scramble. He could hear their tails slapping against the vats, their bodies blundering and crashing against the deactivated automs. They did not bark or howl the way extinct canids would have done, there was only a rasping hiss as the reptiles drew breath past their sharp fangs.
More than the noises the synzards made, it was the frantic shouts from the catwalks and gantries that sent fear pulsing through Javier’s veins. The troopers were alarmed, he could hear the control officers shouting among themselves, trying to dial down the thermo-vests and put the synzards into a stupor. Something had happened and the brutes were out of control.
Javier stared down at his hand, coated in the blood of the synzard he had attacked. Blood! It was the smell of the blood! The other synzards had picked up the scent and it had thrown them into a frenzy. Like himself, the conditioning and manipulation of their controllers had fallen away, opening the reptiles to their true nature. They had become atavistic Aberrants driven by the base instincts that every attempt had been made to suppress and breed away.
A synzard struck Javier from the side, leaping at him from the narrow space between two vats, its long claws raking across his chest and opening his leg almost to the bone. Its jaws snapped only a few centimetres from his face, the flicking tongue brushing across his nose. Javier pushed the brute away, stumbling back and collapsing against the side of a protein vat. The reptile glared at him hungrily with its black eyes, lashing its body viciously from side to side in an effort to reach him. Its bulk was too great to pass between the vats, however and try as it might, the reptile couldn’t reach him.
“Quick! Give me your hand!”
The shout came down to Javier from above. Lifting his eyes, Javier saw a Section Security trooper leaning across the railing of a gantry, his gloved hand stretched towards him. There was an expression of fright and concern on the officer’s face. Looking into the man’s eyes, Javier knew that some awful danger threatened. The racket of the pinned synzard was so loud he couldn’t hear the other reptiles, but from the officer’s expression he knew they were close.
Section Security wouldn’t harm him. They would get him to a surgeon and have his wounds attended, then he would be taken to some doctors and a regimen of drugs would be prescribed to address the chemical imbalances that afflicted him. Re-education would undo the pernicious influences that had brought about his descent into Aberrancy. In a few short months he would be a healthy, productive member of society once more.
He would be just the way the Enlightened wanted him to be.
Javier turned away from the officer above him, ignoring the trooper’s cries of warning. Smiling, he welcomed the jaws and claws that came for him.
Better to die awake than to live in delusion.
An anthology of 13 science-fiction stories depicting a variety of both utopian and dystopian (and admixtures of the two) worlds that await humanity. My contribution is 'Freethinker' in which a man rebels against the exactingly controlled and fabricated society of an authoritarian regime.
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