Aphelion Issue 231, Volume 22
August 2018
 
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Alienatus

by J. R. Hampton




They suddenly became very quiet.

“What do you mean, you don’t have one?”

Of course, he’d heard it all before.

“How do you live?” they’d say.

Ethan had explained it so many times now that it had developed into a script which he could just reel off at will. He knew all the responses. The additional questions. The ridicule.

“Well,” he began, “I just get by without it. I don’t need it.”

What they never understood was that he felt the same way about how they managed to live with it. He didn’t preach. He didn’t want to change their minds. He was happy - they were happy. Why couldn’t people just leave it that way?

“But what do you do if you need to get hold of someone?” one said.

“How do you know what everyone else is thinking?” another chirped in.

“What do you do if you need to know something?” said another.

Books. Talking. Pre-arrange stuff. The typical answers. “In fact,” he added, “It’s quite liberating once you get used to it not being there any longer.”

He didn’t need one to know what they were thinking. Their dumb faces said it all. He was a bore. He was old-fashioned. He was a snob.

Harjit took pity on him. “Well, you can be in my team, Ethan. You can share mine.” she said, whilst patting the empty space next to her on the sofa.

George set up the game. He sent out the connection code for the teams to enter the gameplay.

“What shall we call ourselves?” Harjit asked enthusiastically.

Ethan didn’t care. He didn’t want to play.

As the game started, Harjit gladly commented to let Ethan know what was going on.

“We’re in a starship of some kind.” “Shall I take the turbo lift up or go down the corridor?” “I think there’s a light coming from the porthole.”

George paused the game. “How can we play if Harjit keeps saying everything out loud!” he huffed.

Ethan always felt a chill when he saw people coming out of a game. It was like seeing someone wake up, except that their eyes were already open to begin with. You could almost pinpoint the exact moment.

“It’s only a game.” Hannah butted in.

“Yeh, it’s still fun. Don’t get so worked up, George.” Jamal added.

Ethan raised his hand to deflect the sickening goodwill nods of the others. “You know what?” he said. “I’ll just get myself a drink. I’m not bothered about playing. Anyone want anything?”

When he returned to the room, he just stood and stared at his somnambulant friends. He grabbed a stool, being careful not to make a sound. He didn’t want to disturb them.

He looked around the room. The bare walls leaned in over the dull functionalist furniture. Everything appeared to be at right angles to everything else. The windows were blotted out by the tint. There was no outside.

The only movement came from a broken electronic picture frame which was stuck repetitively on the same flickering image of Hannah’s selfie. It made her face look like a disjointed jigsaw set.

Above him, a bright fluorescent light hung from the ceiling. It was from this that his friends made their connection. A part of him wanted to smash it. Break it. What if it failed? For just one day. What would his friends do then? How would they communicate?

He’d imagined an asteroid impact, or solar flare. The signal would kick out. He’d be okay. He had his books. His mind belonged to him only. He was bored of the games. That’s all anyone did nowadays. The market competed to make the most ‘realistic’ games. That was the pitch. To him, that was also the irony.

He’d disconnected his implant four years ago. He hadn’t meant to. An update had failed. He had waited for three weeks to get a replacement. Three weeks without hearing other people’s opinions. Three weeks without advertising slogans bombarding his every turn. Three weeks without a sound. It was quiet… and he liked it. He got used to it. He enjoyed it.

He enjoyed the silence now. His friend’s bodies just lay out on the sofa. George was rigid. Every now and then, one of his feet would jerk whilst his fingers fidgeted away at nothing.

Jamal had cracks at the corners of his mouth. Hannah’s head slumped onto her shoulder. They had no need for their bodies. They could all talk through their implants. Didn’t even need vocal chords.

He studied Harjit. She was the prettiest. Would she take out her implant if she could see herself now? he wondered. He liked her hair. He liked the little freckles on her cheeks. He’d imagined what it would be like to take her away. Show her the countryside. The seaside. She’d be happy. Holding his hand. The wind would blow her hair across her face and she’d be smiling. She’d be happy. They’d be happy.

“What?”

“When we were playing I saw him staring at her!”

Ethan snapped out of his daydream. All of his friends now had disgusted looks on their faces.

George was leering at him. “What did you say?”

Hannah replied, “When we were playing I saw him staring at her!”

Harjit moved away, covering herself with her arms.

Their heads were now moving back and forth to each other. He could tell they were talking about him. In their heads. With their implants.

Ethan raised his hand to deflect the accusing stares of the others.

George’s fists were clenching. “What are you thinking, Ethan?”

Ethan looked to Harjit to try to explain but he couldn’t form the words.

“What are you hiding, Ethan?” George demanded.

Ethan caught Jamal’s eye. Jamal took the cue and tried to help out his friend. “Look. Let him speak. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything.”

Hannah and George looked at one another. George then turned to Ethan. His shoulders dropped and he held out his palms. “Okay bro. What is up with you?” he joked, “We weren’t saying you did anything.”

They were all smiling at Ethan now. Trying to make him feel relaxed. Brushing it off. Ethan couldn’t move. He could feel his knees giving way.

Hannah made a space on the sofa. Her voice crackled. “Yeh, stop being so weird Ethan!” she teased.

George moved in onto Ethan’s side, tucking his arm around Ethan’s shoulders. “You know what, bro?” he began, close to Ethan’s ear, “I can activate it for you. If you want?”

Jamal was now towering over him. “You can turn it back off straight after.” he compromised.

“Yeh, then we’ll all know what you’re thinking, and everything will be fine again.” Hannah added.

Ethan looked to Harjit. He could see that she didn’t want to go along with this. She was as intimidated by George as the rest were. She looked away.

Before Ethan could move, the others moved in synchronicity to hold him down.

“It’ll only take a second.” George’s fidgeting fingers scampered at the nape of his neck.

A sharp electrical zap seemed to snap at the back of Ethan’s skull before he felt everything fade from his view. He stopped struggling.

When he opened his eyes, he felt a strange sensation similar to that of when he brings his head up from under the sea.

His friend’s faces began to clear around him. Staring at him for an answer.

He heard Harjit first, “So… what do you think?”

He could now hear them all. Clarity. Their mouths weren’t moving but he could hear them. In their heads. With their implants.

Ethan sat up. “Scary!” he said. “That’s the best role-play game I’ve ever played!” He continued, “For a moment, I really thought that it was real, that I didn’t have an implant. It was so realistic.”

Harjit laughed, “For a moment. I nearly believed it myself! Can you imagine what the world was like before this? I wouldn’t want to have lived back then.”

Ethan nodded his head along with the others.

“Let’s play another!” they thought.



THE END


2017 J. R. Hampton

Bio: A science-fiction fanatic who resides in Coventry in the United Kingdom. I like to spend my free time scouring the internet for old copies of vintage sci-fi magazines. My work has appeared in Perihelion SF, Mad Scientist Journal, Schlock! Webzine, The Flash Fiction Press, Tethered by Letters, 365 tomorrows, The Pygmy Giant and Flash Fiction Magazine. You can say hello on Twitter (@joolshampton).

Email: J. R. Hampton

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