Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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by Philip Hamm

"Jason…? Can you hear me?"

Jason Runner’s mind began to clear; he was standing in his kitchen holding a paper tray with the remains of the meal he was eating congealing at the bottom. For a moment he was disorientated and looked around to see who was speaking to him.

"Don’t say anything, Jason; don’t react. You’ve been under sedation but we’ve counter-acted the drug. I’m speaking to you through nano-psyches in your mind. They’re still listening, Jason, so don’t reply to anything I say…"

A wave of panic made his hands tremble and he felt sick. How long had he been sedated? How long had he been living, un-dead, with his mind in a state of drug-induced neutrality?

Along with the voice there was a low-pitched hum and tiny bursts of static. It was only when the fork he was holding dropped to the ground with a sudden metallic crash that he fully comprehended he wasn’t listening with his ears.

"On the bottom of the tray there is a list of directions, Jason; if you want answers you will follow them exactly. Don’t read them in the kitchen; there’s a camera watching you and there are more in the other rooms but if you go back to bed you can read it under the covers…"

He wondered how he was going to see them; the lights were so low he could barely find his fork on the floor. He bent down slowly, leaving the tray on the edge of the table so when he glanced up he could see if there was anything underneath. A piece of paper with words written in luminescent ink stared back at him. He picked up the fork and stood up again.

The voice continued, "I know what you’re thinking, Jason, not literally of course, but I know you must be thinking this is another trick by the neuropolice. The nano-psyches are beginning to wear off so I don’t have time to give you any of answers you must want. Just follow the instructions Jason and I hope to see you soon..."

The voice and the hum faded away. Suddenly his mind was very clear and the silence in the apartment left him feeling isolated and exposed. He glanced around for signs of the cameras but it was difficult to see anything in the gloom.

He remembered the mistakes he had made. He remembered how he had been caught.

Through the doorway a corridor led to the living room, the bedroom and his teaching room. He had made the mistake of challenging ‘official history’, had even tried in his clumsy way to correct it and for that they had put sedatives in his food and kept his mind blank. For how long; he had no way of knowing. He couldn’t remember how long his hair or beard had been before his punishment had began but they didn’t seem excessively unruly.

He tore the instructions off the bottom of the tray and balled them up in his fist. He kept to the routine of washing the fork in the sink and disposing of the tray through the slot in the wall. He walked slowly out of the kitchen and back to the bedroom. On the way he passed the dead monitors of his teaching room; not even the red glow of the stand-by buttons shone back at him.

It was too dark to see the hole in the floor he had made trying to find the junction box to the communications link. It would have been a waste of time even if he had succeeded in finding it; he had no tools to patch into the system. His efforts had only been an expression of his frustration at the lies and deceits he perpetrated through his teaching every day.

He reached the bedroom and crawled under the covers. He wondered how he had survived under sedation. He remembered only vague instances as though he had been very ill, in a fever and incapable of higher thought. He had functioned automatically; feeding, bathing, going to the toilet and then sleeping without dreams.

That they could do this to him was bad enough; that they could do it with the full force of law was horrifying. He found he was shaking. He was frightened, not angry, he realised they could have kept him sedated for the rest of his life. He would have had no life; nothing more than an existence in a twilight world through which he would have walked like a ghost of his former self.

He unfolded the paper and looked at the glowing words. The letters were badly formed and the ink had blotched and spread making the message difficult to decipher. ‘Meet me’ it said. ‘Leave your flat and descend to the basement. Come to section A45. Leave at exactly 1.15 or ten minutes after you have eaten.’

He had no clock. He had no idea which meal came when; all the trays were identical. Balanced carbohydrates, vitamins and supplements; very little protein and nothing green. No eggs for breakfast or a sandwich for lunch; no candlelit suppers in the evening: food was fuel and nothing else. He had to assume they knew this. He had to assume they meant the next meal.

Runner could hear his pulse beating in his ears. Time seemed to stretch ahead and the last thing he wanted was to wait patiently, not after the drugs, not after spending so long searching for answers. He wanted to pace around the room. He wanted to move but he knew the sensors would draw their attention. How was he going to leave the apartment without tripping a dozen alarms?

Then there was the problem of the journey; to leave the apartment where he had spent all his life. Even if the virus was a lie and had never existed, how could he throw off his fear of the outside, so long ingrained into his mind like an instinctive reaction to pull away from fire?

He had to put his faith in the glowing words of strangers. Their disembodied voices had promised only answers and not safety or a happy end. But then how could things get worse? If this was a trap then the neuropolice would sedate him again and he would live out his days without thought or feeling; he would cease to exist as a person. The risk was small. If the words were genuine perhaps the person could begin to live again…

His mind lurched from one scenario to the other, positive and negative, until he began to realise he didn’t care either way. Permanent sedation had its own appeal if there was no way of improving his lot in life; and if self-determination was a possibility perhaps he could end it all, end the misery of this existence, and choose suicide over imprisonment. Or, and this was a hope he didn’t even dare to consider, perhaps there was a greener life beyond the walls of his apartment. Perhaps there was a better way…

The bell rang and like one of Pavlov’s dogs Runner got up to feed. He had no idea how long he had waited but the fear was gone. He would leave the flat even if it meant certain death. If the Super Virus was still as active as the authorities claimed then it was better to die than live in a half-lit world at the whim of neuropolice and their powerful drugs.

He stared at the new tray and wondered if there were more sedatives among its cold contents. If he didn’t eat they would know something was wrong. He glanced at the ceiling and wondered if they were watching. He made a show of picking up his fork and peeling back the cover. He let it slip through his fingers and fall on the floor. He knelt down and shovelled the contents back onto the tray and put it back through the slot. He washed the fork. He wiped the floor. To anybody watching it ought to have looked like an accident.

He stood and waited to see if another tray would arrive; they had to be worried that the sedatives would wear off if he didn’t get them regularly. Nothing came so he turned away slowly and left the kitchen.

With his blood pounding in his head, Jason Runner turned right and not left. Without pausing he walked to the door of the apartment and grabbed hold of the handle. He could feel the dirt against his palm as he twisted, feeling the metal grinding like arthritic joints. The mechanism protested, a sound so loud he thought the whole building would hear it; then it broke away, the door opened and musty air filtered through the gap. The door hinges resisted but he kept tugging at the handle until the gap was wide enough for him to squeeze through.

He stepped into another twilight world. He could just make out the machinery that brought him his meals; a track suspended from the ceiling with chutes to the slots in the walls. He saw other doors, their numbers blurred with dust and time. He looked at his own door; R8965 was stencilled onto the metal surface in white paint.

The only light in the corridor was coming from the left through a glass door. He couldn’t work out why it was so white or kept fading in and out until he realised it was coming from outside; it was real light and not artificial. Drawn towards it, he walked down the corridor, his soft shoes slipping in the layer of dust. Everything was silent; no noises came from behind the other doors he passed. The anonymous numbers didn’t even indicate if they were occupied or not. Cobwebs blew in the draft he was creating but otherwise the air was still and dead.

He pushed open the glass door, leaving a smear of dust on the tiled floor, and stepped into a stairwell. High above his head, sunlight streamed down through a glass roof. Runner stared in wonder at the rectangle of blue with white clouds passing slowly. He gripped the handrail as the sight of all the floors above gave him vertigo; gripped it tighter still when he looked down and saw even more below.

Holding on to the rail as tightly as he could, he began to descend the stairs. He left his footprints in the dust, like walking through virgin snow. After two floors his knees were beginning to buckle and his legs felt the pain of unaccustomed exercise. But he kept going; he was out of breath and every time he looked down at the steepness of the stairs or over the rail into the abyss below he felt like running back to his cell. Except he couldn’t run; his muscles were atrophied and his lungs were barely capable of keeping him on his feet.

The stairwell was filthy and the motes of dust he was kicking up kept glinting in the light from above. He felt like sneezing. The filtered air in his apartment was like cool water compared to this muddy fen of noxious odours. He couldn’t work out what the smell was; was it the smell of abandoned time or was there some other subtle agent at work? Could this be the scent of the SV, still living and breathing, waiting for a human victim?

He shut the thought from his mind. He was in enough pain from the simple action of walking; he didn’t need phantom horrors to plague him as well.

The stairwell grew darker and darker as he descended further from the light above. Letters were painted on the walls to indicate each level. Eventually he reached level A and realised he was not alone. Other footprints had disturbed the dust. He hadn’t noticed what floor they had begun at but now he saw them his mind gave another lurch and threatened to send him tumbling down the remaining steps.

He pushed through doors at the bottom and stumbled. He was in an entrance hall, its main doors barred and bolted. It was the biggest open space he had ever seen, with a glass wall along one side, and a tiled floor twice the area of his apartment. Opaque and fogged with dirt, Runner could make out shapes on the other side of the glass; plants of some kind growing outside, twisting darkly; an enchanted forest guarding his castle.

He realised this was not a habitation level; the doors were double the size of those above. He could hear machinery and see the entrails of the building snaking across the ceiling. There were two dark corridors branching left and right. Numbers one to fifty with an arrow pointing right had been stencilled onto the wall beside him. He stepped into the hall, felt exposed and then smiled wryly at his cowardice; vertigo and now agoraphobia, what value human courage now?

He crossed the hall, following a trail of footprints that made him feel more nervous than anything else. What was he going to find in section forty-five? Neuropolice and a life of torture or a new reality and the answers he was seeking?

The corridor leading from the hall was dark and warm and made him feel more secure. It was not difficult to find section forty-five; the trail was as obvious as the footprints of animals to a hunter. There was a door and he knocked on it softly.

"Come in Jason," said a voice.

Runner opened the door and stepped into the room. An old man was waiting for him, sitting on a box surrounded by piles of suitcases. His eyes looked hollow and wary. His hair was white and his body was thin and fragile. He was also familiar. "Welcome," he said with a shy smile.

"I’ve seen you before," said Runner. "You were the one that told me to go to the library if I wanted to see original versions of the authors I was looking for; I didn’t realise then how ironic you were being."

The old man smiled again, "Difficult isn’t it? Leaving everything that’s familiar and stepping out into the wider world…"

Runner nodded and looked around. The air was thick with the smell of decay and damp. A single naked bulb reflected on the pale forehead of his host. "This is not exactly what I expected to find…"

"Sit down, Jason. We mustn’t stay long but we’re so glad you could come."

Another box was waiting for him. Runner hesitated. "Who’s ‘we’, I only see you..."

"Our group; we call ourselves ‘November’ because this is the time after the fall (our little joke). The others were too frightened to come, many of us, like you, are being watched constantly but I’m old and quite frankly I’m beyond caring. They won’t miss me for a while…"

Runner smiled and then looked closely at the suitcases and trunks. They were old and battered with bar-coded labels attached to their handles. "What is this place?" he asked.

"This was where they dumped the luggage when you were first brought here."

"I don’t remember; it’s too long ago…"

"Of course not but I expect if you dug deep enough you would find your name here somewhere."

Runner sat down. "I wonder how many will ever be re-claimed?"

The old man shrugged, "We don’t even know how many people are left alive in this building."

"No idea at all?"

"None," the old man stared for a moment at the floor as if he was trying to remember the names and the faces of the people he had known. "We’re all alone now," he said wistfully.

Runner felt impatient. "Who are you?" he asked, looking at the fidgeting hands with their twisted fingers and large knuckles.

"My name is Hawkins. I look after the data streams…"

"And how did you stop the neuropolice from keeping me drugged…?"

He shrugged, "I have a contact that deals with the food supply; it was easy enough to make the switch but we were worried their drugs might have been too powerful for our antidote. Our nano-psyches are not as good as those used by the police."

"Are there lots of you?"

"No, just a few and we’ve risked everything to try and bring you here; we didn’t even know if you would interpret the instructions correctly."

"It was difficult waiting for the next tray to arrive," Runner admitted. "I didn’t know if you had managed to stop the drugs completely or not. I pretended to drop it, just in case."

"Good, if they spotted you leaving then you can use the excuse that you were searching blindly for something to eat. But I doubt if they noticed."

"What do you mean?"

"Everybody watches but nobody ‘sees’…"

"I don’t understand."

"Nor should you, that’s what they want; if you ‘feel’ as though you are being watched; isn’t that as good as if you were?"

"They knew I was breaking the rules…"

"They knew you were trying to break through the floor; they didn’t find out about the rest until they looked closely at your record."

"Do they know I’ve left the apartment? Will they send somebody to find me?"

"Who can say? It’s not illegal to leave your apartment; this isn’t a prison block."

"But what about the Super Virus…? By leaving the apartment I’m a danger to the public… at least, that’s what they told me…"

Hawkins shook his head, "The only dangers you represent are your desire to question the existence of the virus and the danger you pose to yourself by wanting to risk exposure. There’s not much they can say now you’ve actually left the apartment. There is no law that traps us inside, Jason. We trap ourselves and the illusion is encouraged by the system."

"What about the President, the Government…"

"President, Prime Minister, King, Queen; who knows what’s out there? I’ve found no evidence to suggest that any of those concepts exist any more."

"None at all…?"

"Nothing, Jason; just memories and shadows from the past."

"Does that mean there is or there isn’t a Super Virus?"

Hawkins shrugged, "We don’t know. There was definitely the threat of one many years ago but we don’t know for sure if it ever existed."

"And they can keep the truth from us with the blessing of the law…"

"Perhaps but the rules are for your protection. There is no evil in what they do: the neuropolice probably know less about the truth than we do…"

"But does that mean I could have been wrong about the history I tried to question?"

"No, the past was definitely different; but it wasn’t changed for the reasons you think it was. For example, how many students did you have?"

Runner shrugged, "Six, sometimes more…"

"Would it surprise you to learn that before the virus crisis students were grouped into years with perhaps twenty to thirty in each class? They would have been taught together, in a room, not isolated in their own homes. A teacher would have been responsible for a hundred or more across the whole school; all moving about at pre-arranged times..."

"I didn’t know that…"

"Then the law was changed to limit the number in each class; it was felt that small groups learnt more. Then the same law was used to separate students from each other: one to one teaching was held up as an ideal and used as an excuse to close the schools entirely. All education could be done by computer and video screens. The threat of the virus made this process more logical but the law never anticipated the other extreme: isolation and depression; lack of human contact. So you see Jason, even a simple wish to improve the education of individuals has contributed to the deterioration of our society. Could we have stopped this happening? We saw no reason to at the time."

"Then why am I here?"

"You recognise the danger we are all in. The past has been manipulated and people are dying, isolated and alone, not from the virus but from any number of psychological problems."

"You know this for certain?"

"Enough to risk breaking the law to encourage you to join us," There was a long pause while he judged Runner’s reaction.

"Why me?" he asked eventually. "I don’t have any special knowledge, I’m just a history teacher and I don’t seem to know much of that either…"

"You know more than you realise except there is no conspiracy, Jason; we have done this to ourselves. As a people, we created the laws to protect us from the virus and now we cannot change them. We have legislated ourselves into imprisonment and there is nothing we can do."

"Why not, why can’t we just change the rules and let everybody live freely again?"

"Because there are too few of us left to change them."

Runner stared, "Too few…?"

"The system was created to govern itself in case the virus took the politicians and the law-makers. Whatever their private thoughts, the neuropolice are simply following the instructions their predecessors laid down for our preservation. Now there is no assembly or parliament that can over-turn them. We are stuck in the past; caught up in legal processes made in a more complex world and we have too few resources to over-turn them."

"Then how…?"

"By education, Jason; by bringing people back together…"

"How can I do that if all my attempts to question history are being blocked by the rules?"

"There are other ways. You tried to shout when you should have been whispering. You could see your students on the monitors and yet you made no attempt to get to know them; listen to them Jason, listen to their silent cries for help…"

"But it’s too late; my teaching licence has been revoked and I’m supposed to be in a semi-coma…"

"What keeps the neuropolice putting sedatives in your food?"

"A court order…"

Hawkins shook his head, "A single command in a programme, time-specific to the length of your sentence; we may not be able to do much but we can change that command, reduce the sentence to nothing and free you from the drugs permanently. Then your licence can be reinstated and you can carry on as before."

"I don’t believe you…" said Runner. But then a simple truth began to dawn on him. "Unless, of course, one of you is a judge…"

Hawkins ignored him, "Once the sentence is lifted the neuropolice are obliged to stop all visual surveillance. You’ll be free to move around your apartment without worrying about what they might see. Then you will be able to teach again; I think you know that tampering with the education programmes was a mistake but there are other ways to give hope to your students. If we can do this, will you help us in our cause?"

Runner laughed bitterly, "I have nothing to lose. Without my teaching I’m nothing and if the neuropolice sedate me ‘nothing’ will mean even less. Of course I’ll help you."

"Thank you, Jason. We should be going; no point in drawing attention to ourselves before we’ve even begun… I’m getting old but before I die I would like to see this world change for the better. You might blame our generation for all the trouble we have caused but we didn’t know any better."

Runner stood up, not entirely convinced by the contrite apology. "We’re beyond the apocalypse now," he said. "I’m sure you know more than you’re willing to tell me but that’s for your conscience, not mine. I’ll do what you ask because I know this is the right thing to do. We all deserve better than this; especially the young. They had no hand in the creation of this system or even their own lives. The law even robs them of the right to have a parent after the age of eight; what kind of life is that for a young mind?"

"I know Jason; that’s why your work is so important…"

"Don’t patronise me; I’m grateful that you’ve freed me from the drugs but ask yourselves: is this too little too late? Could you have done more to stop this, years ago?"

"Probably… There is no monster in the heart of the machine only a system designed to save mankind."

"It doesn’t feel as though I’m being ‘saved’." He opened the door and paused before he left, asked, "You know, even if I can reach out to my students, we’re still trapped inside this building…"

"The door is locked from the inside, Jason; somewhere there is a key or another way out."

"Do you know what’s outside?"

"Though we’re certain there’s more than one block and there must be factories of some kind to produce our food and clothing, we don’t know how the world has changed since our incarceration…"

"But you’ve never tried to leave, not even when you were much younger…?"

"No Jason; but then you don’t know what kind of society we grew up in…"

"Another time," said Runner, growing impatient again. "Will you contact me through the food trays or will you be able to reach me through the communications system?"

"Once you’ve been reinstated and the surveillance is lifted we should be able to talk to you via your teaching monitors; but use visual symbols, Jason; they monitor for key words and phrases…"

Runner gave a nod and stepped out of the door. He closed it quietly behind him and began the long walk back to his apartment. He didn’t know what to feel; elated at the prospect of not being alone or disappointed that this was it; there were no dragons for him to slay only inanimate rules and regulations, scuttling bureaucracies like the cockroaches in his bathroom…

And what was this ‘November’? A few old men feeling guilty for the world they had made? Hardly the stuff of revolutions…

When he reached the hall he stopped for a moment, looked across at the opaque windows with their promise of a green world outside. He couldn’t resist getting closer; to take a look at the barrier between him and a living-breathing earth...

The bolts on the doors were all in place and the hole for the key was empty. How many doors would he have to knock on to find it? Perhaps he could just break the glass and walk through…

A shadow moved across the window to his left. Runner took a step back. Perhaps it was just a branch moving in the wind… The shadow grew darker as it came closer to the glass. It stopped, the silhouette of a hand reached out and a head came even closer as if to listen for signs of life.

Runner froze. He watched the shadow put its ear against the glass then turn and try to peer inside, two hands cupped around its eyes. There was a moment when they seemed to stare at each other.

Runner wanted to cry out but his voice failed him. The stronger, instinctive part of him still feared the virus, the neuropolice and the countless other terrors to do with a world full of people. He kept quiet and still, his heart beating loudly, courage failing…

Then the shadow, as if believing it had been mistaken, faded and withdrew. It lingered for a moment and then went away.


© 2007 Philip Hamm

Bio: Philip Hamm is a lecturer in English Literature and American History at a college in the UK. A number of his stories have appeared in various online publications, including "The Great Barnooli's Wedding Reception", "Around the World in 80 Minute", and "Ivory Tower". Jason Runner and his world were introduced in Libertas Scriptor (Aphelion, September 2005), and our view of that world and its workings was expanded in Neuropol (Aphelion, November 2006). "November" literally opens the door of Runner's cocoon-like apartment and lets him (and us) see a little of the real world...

E-mail: Philip Hamm

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