Ecks stepped out of the sanitisation unit and into the dryer. He closed his eyes and breathed out softly as the warm air of ‘desert breeze’ blew over his naked body. He relished this part of the day and the gentle sensations that helped him to surface from sleep. He sighed. All of a sudden the air turned freezing cold. Ecks cried out in shock. A female voice spoke in his head and he automatically lifted his hand to his right temple.
“This,” the voice said, “is ‘mountain fresh’. May you feel energised.”
He shivered involuntarily. They should get this sorted. This was now the second day in a row that this had happened. He wondered how many others were having the same problem. Why wasn’t it being sorted?
He jumped out of the cubicle and waited for the voice in his head to let him know that he was now completely dry and ready for his clothes. It was the same routine every day, and he knew it by heart, but he still waited to be told what to do. The voice was smooth and calming and he was pleased at his choice. He had spent a long weekend choosing her from the scheduled list of over five hundred variations. She reminded him of someone, a faint recollection of a woman he once knew back in the days when it was safe to go out. Perhaps it was his mother. He had named her after his mother, Alice, and indeed she was now looking after him as if he were her son.
“Ecks, you are dry now. Please get dressed,” she purred in his head.
He moved to a small pile of clothes, folded neatly on a chair, and pulled on a one piece thermal-control tunic, which was in blue because it was Tuesday. He sat down and stretched a pair of comfort-shoes onto his soft skinned feet.
“Your breakfast is ready,” said Alice.
Ecks always felt as though he should reply, as though he should say ‘thank you’ or something, but knew deep down that she had no heart and no emotion and that thanking Alice would just be a waste of breath.
He went to the breakfast bar, where a plate of freshly cooked eggs and toast was waiting for him. He had wanted bacon as well, but Alice had warned him of the high saturated fat content and had chosen not to allow him bacon for another four days, sixteen hours and thirty-three minutes. She was the cook after all and she also was the one monitoring his health and vital statistics. The night before she had even projected an image of his heart on the living room wall and had pointed out the clogging arteries and thickening walls. In his mind he had apologised to her, for Alice knew best. She knew more about him than he did.
He sat on the barstool and ate slowly, thinking about the day to come. Today was momentous. Today they finished the project.
“Ecks, it is time to go to work.”
He picked up a mug of coffee and headed over to the work station, a large glass screen that was suspended electromagnetically a few centimetres from the wall. It blinked and then lit up as he approached. He sat down in front of it. A display appeared in the top corner. Date: Tuesday June 13, 2084, Time: 08:02.
Ecks tapped the screen. “Alice, reconfirm the time.”
The screen blinked and then reconfirmed that it was indeed two minutes past eight. Ecks felt his pulse quicken. How could this be? Alice always called him for work at exactly eight o’clock. She had done so ever since he adjusted her settings, goodness knows how many years ago now. It was always eight o’clock when he started work. Never two minutes past.
His thoughts were interrupted by a face appearing on the screen.
“Hi Kew,” he said. The words appeared on the glass.
“Hi Ecks. Big day today.” The written words faded in and then faded out as if spoken silently.
“You sure we can finish on time?”
“Let’s get to it.”
“Alice, music please,” ordered Ecks. The Adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto began to play in his head. He smiled. Good choice, he thought. But then Alice knew what he liked.
Ecks stroked a finger across the glass plate and an image of a forest materialised. He touched with his fingers, rapidly drawing with an index finger on one hand and spotting in colours with the fingers of the other. A bird emerged, some sort of parakeet, and he enlarged the picture and decorated it with bright feathers in high definition. When he was satisfied he said, “Alice, animate.” The parakeet turned its head, fluttered its wings and then took off and soared through the trees.
“Watch this, Kew,” said Ecks, and the words appeared on the monitor.
Ecks went to the window and looked out into the street. Across the road they had erected a barrier of screens, stretching as far as the eye could see. They called it the city walls. On these was projected a life-sized rendition of the computerised forest, looking so real that you could almost walk into it. That is if you ever dared to go out. The trees moved gently as if in a breeze, butterflies flitted here and there, and now and again a flock of birds would fly in and gather noisily in a tree, before taking off and swooping out of view. A roe deer emerged from behind a distant clump of oaks and nibbled at grass below a fallen elm. And into this scene of tranquillity and peace flew the newly created parakeet, its dazzling colours drawing eyes from every house on the street.
Ecks resumed his seat in front of the glass monitor. “Well, Kew, what do you think?”
“Pretty good,” said Kew, “but watch this! This is my final rendition.”
Ecks looked carefully at the forest. What would Kew have created now? He always was a bit of a maverick. But Ecks could see nothing new.
“What?” said Ecks.
There was a rustling in the trees and then a crashing of falling branches. Suddenly a large creature, the size of an elephant came crashing through the undergrowth, but this was no elephant. Ecks could hardly believe his eyes. The Tyrannosaurus rex looked him straight in the eyes before turning tail and running back into the forest.
“Do you think they’ll notice?” asked Kew.
Ecks rubbed at his temple where the implant lay hidden just beneath the skin. He had had it put in on the day he moved in; the day he moved out of the streets. It had seemed to him a sensible thing to do, to give up his so called freedom outside for the safety of the sheltered home and a lifelong job. That was the day he signed in as a civic employee and gave up his rights. The day his name was exchanged for a letter. He performed his obligatory civic duty by donating sperm at the Clinic for the Furtherance of the Species, and signed away his organs, to be taken by the grey men when he died. He had done his bit for mankind, and now was kept safe and well fed by the civil authorities. He had given up being human for the sake of the human race.
The implant allowed him to listen to music which drowned out the otherwise deathly silence in his flat. Mozart, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, and Brahms coloured his days as he coloured the animals in the forest. It also allowed him to hear Alice as she ordered his time. She was linked to the mainframe somewhere deep in cyberspace and was not only his carer, but also his spy. Whatever he did was recorded and reported, and the government was watching.
Alice took care of every detail of his life, and would take care of every detail of his death. She ordered his food which was left at night by the grey men, and also his clothes that were cleaned, mended and returned to him in parcels tied with old-fashioned string. He needed for nothing. Apart from companionship.
As a substitute for this, Ecks was allowed to correspond by the glass monitor with twenty-five other co-workers, chosen by rank and name. Apart from that, he knew nobody. He never went out. Why would you when it was so unsafe?
The next morning he awoke to the sound of Alice’s gentle tones, and headed for the sanitisation unit. He stepped in and the door closed automatically behind him. A gentle light glowed above his head and the Brahms Lullaby began to play in his head. He waited. Nothing happened.
“Alice. Steam,” he said.
Still nothing. That morning there was no cloud of sterilised and perfumed water to wash his body. He waited a bit longer and then heard Alice say, “Ecks, it is time for you to be dried.” The doors opened and he stepped through into the dryer. No breeze came, either warm or cool.
“Ecks, you are dry now. Please get dressed. ” Alice spoke as if all was well.
“Alice, what is wrong?”
“There is nothing wrong, all is functioning normally.” Her electronic voice crackled a tiny bit as she spoke. Ecks pulled on a yellow jumpsuit, this being Wednesday.
“Your breakfast is ready,” said Alice.
Ecks went to the breakfast bar where a plate of fried eggs and toast was waiting for him. “Alice, I asked for cereal this morning.” Ecks was beginning to feel unnerved and slightly anxious. What was going on? Alice did not answer, bit he was hungry and so bolted down the cereal.
“Ecks, it is time to go to work.”
He picked up his mug of coffee and headed over to the work station. The screen blinked on. Date: Wednesday June 14, 2084, Time: 08:10. Ten minutes past eight! Ecks quickly spoke to the screen.
“Kew! Kew, buddy, are you there? What the hell’s going on with the computers?”
A woman’s face appeared on the screen in front of him. She was young and had long blond hair and looked anxious, as if something had spooked her. Words appeared on the screen.
“I am Ti. I am sorry but Kew is no longer here.”
Ecks tipped back on his chair, and felt the blood draining from his face. They had taken Kew! He had gone too far with the dinosaur, tempting fate once too often.
They both knew the protocol. “I am sorry for the loss,” he said.
“I am your new co-worker,” said Ti. That was all they needed to say.
Ecks needed to think. Was this what happened when they took you? One day you were working and the next you were gone? The rumour was that the computers put you to bed and then, during the night, flooded the bedroom with carbon monoxide, sending you into a deep sleep from which you never woke. Had this happened to Kew? Had the grey men finally come for him in the night and carted him away in a body bag? Was he, Ecks, the next? Was that why Alice was behaving so strangely? He needed some comfort.
“Alice, music please.” Ecks slammed his palm against his temple as a thumping beat of drums and searing guitar thrashed through his brain. Black Sabbath were in full throttle. He clutched at his head, massaging the thin skin over the implant. “Stop the music!” he yelled, and all was silent. “Thank you,” he muttered.
Suddenly the floating monitor dropped to the floor, smashing and scattering a million shards of glass across the room. The lights dipped and then went out. Ecks stumbled to the window and peered out. The giant screens were all blank. The forest had gone. The city walls were dark. He slumped onto the sofa.
“Alice? Alice? Are you there?”
His temple throbbed.
The next day Ecks woke by himself as the first rays of sunshine lit the room. His immediate reaction was to jump out of bed. If it was already daylight he was already late for work. Then, remembering the day before, he caught himself and called out again for Alice, hoping for, but not expecting, an answer. There was none.
He went to the sanitisation unit but the door would not open. He looked for his clothes but there were none waiting for him. Going to the basket he pulled out yesterday’s yellow suit and put it on, feeling slightly dirty and out of synch. He had never before worn yellow on a Thursday. Thursdays were red. There was no breakfast waiting for him. He looked out on the street.
The city walls were still blank and disturbingly dark. In their reflection he could now see his flat in the row of houses that sided the street. He had not seen the outside of his home since the day he moved in, and noted how dilapidated it had now become. No-one ever cleaned it or repaired it or weeded the road. It was just too dangerous to do anything but the deliveries of food and clothing and the removal of the dead.
He caught a blur of movement in the corner of his eye and swivelled his head to see what it was. Reflected in the city wall was a man, dressed in yellow, ducking down the street. His movements were jerky and he looked behind him often. And then another appeared from a doorway and crept out into the road. He too wore yesterday’s clothes. One by one doors opened as the captives found liberation. Ecks felt his pulse racing and the implant pounded in his head. He went to the kitchen and pulled a sharp knife from the drawer, then with a swift slice opened the skin and plucked at the implant. He tugged a little and it fell into his palm. It was just a tiny disk, no larger than the bitten nail on his little finger, and he pondered for a moment on the way that this tiny chip had controlled his life for so many years. He rolled it between his fingers, then dropped it to the floor and crunched it under his foot. Then Ecks opened the door and breathed in the fresh air.