The sound of two officers pounding on the door should have garnered attention from inside the house. Across the street. But the rest of the houses were empty, no one peering through curtains or answering doors. “Time’s up, Kimberly! Let’s go!” The police officers waited for a response, but heard nothing. The rookie officer raised his fist to knock again, but the other one shook his head.
“Don’t bother. Let’s just get it done.”
The rookie nodded his assent, and brought up the door ram. His partner grasped the opposite side and waited for the count. “One, two, three!” They swung the ram, connected with the door, and sent it flying open in a shower of splinters.
Kimberly was inside her living room, absorbed in the digital world of a video game. She had headphones over her ears and a controller in her hands. Her gaze was unfocused, and she didn’t acknowledge the two police officers in her home, despite their noisy entrance. The room was a mess, and it looked and smelled like she hadn’t left her sofa for several days.
“Kimberly!” No response. The veteran officer moved in front of the screen, blocking it from her view.
Kim’s eyes changed from glassy to focused to enraged in an instant, and she directed a barrage of foul language at the officer in front of her. She brought the controller up over her head, planning to hit him with it, but the rookie was behind her and grabbed her wrists. Kim brought her feet up to kick the veteran officer, but he grabbed her ankles, zip-tied them together, and wrapped one arm around her knees. The rookie officer was still struggling with Kim’s wrists, unprepared for her violent reluctance. The veteran yanked the controller out of her hands by its cord, and the rookie managed to restrain her wrists with another pair of zip-tie cuffs. They began carrying her out of the room, and her headphones slipped off her ears and fell to the sofa.
Kim writhed, shouted obscenities, and generally made a nuisance of herself all the way from her sofa to the police cruiser parked in front of her house. The officers locked her in the prisoner compartment in the back and sighed in relief. The prisoner compartment was padded for the prisoner’s comfort, and soundproofed for the officers’. They climbed into the front seat and left quickly, eager to be done with their final duty for the year.
Kim lived in an older suburb, so the drive to the Introspection Facility wasn’t long. There also wasn’t any traffic. The city seemed deserted, although everything was in order, and none of the streets or buildings was in a state of disrepair. It spooked Kim to see a city with no people in it, enough that she stopped kicking and shouting for a few minutes. The city without its citizens was so…sterile.
The Facility itself was a massive concrete cube that was really just a smaller city in the middle of a much bigger one. Kim couldn’t see it from inside the cruiser, but she could tell when they arrived. The cruiser, which normally hovered about a foot from the ground, stopped moving like a ground car and shot vertically into the air so fast that the inertia pinned Kim to the floor of the prisoner compartment. Once at the top of the gigantic cube, the cruiser moved like a ground car again for a short moment. As soon as it stopped moving, Kim started kicking and screaming again, determined to make life difficult for the officers. But it wasn’t the two officers who pulled her out; it was two Facility Guards. Well, she could make life hard for them, too. The cruiser sped off and, after a long minute, disappeared over the far edge of the concrete plateau.
The sounds of Kim struggling with the Facility Guards preceded her down the corridor. “No!” she shouted. “It’s barbaric! You can’t make me do it!” Her shouts echoed in the sterile space that wasn’t made to absorb sound, getting louder as she approached her destination.
Bill rolled his eyes and received a knowing smirk from Anne, who was already suspended in her tube across the corridor. This happened every year. Bill didn’t understand why Kim fought. Introspection was going to happen whether Kim liked it or not. The tube was for her safety. In the past, thousands of people had died every year simply because Introspection had started while they were still driving home from a party, taking a bath, or a hundred other things that could kill you if you fell asleep doing them.
The Guards managed to get Kim out of her cuffs and into her tube. It automatically began filling with the gel that suspended the body and partially paralyzed it, preventing injury. Kim quieted down immediately, which Bill found odd. Usually she complained loudly until the guards left the corridor. Bill found it annoying that Kim’s tube was at the very end of this particular wing of the Introspection Facility, and the last one filled. Hadn’t anyone ever tried to move her to the front of the line? He supposed they had considered the idea but had ultimately rejected it. No use giving her more time to complain and disturb everyone else. This time, however, she let them finish their work in peace. Good, Bill thought, maybe she’s on her way to just accepting this part of life. Finally.
Within seconds the gel encased Kim entirely, except for her face. The numbing and paralyzing agents began working right away, but usually took a few minutes to have their full effect. Bill, on the other hand, had been prepped for nearly an hour. Unlike Kim, he looked forward to Introspection, and checked in as early as the Facility Staff would let him. He could no longer feel anything below his chin, but he could still talk to the others around him until Introspection took hold.
The clock at the end of the corridor read 0006. Bill tried to stifle his impatience. Only six minutes to go, but six minutes would feel like six hours when Kim started her annual tradition of talking nonstop until the very last second. It was as if she couldn’t stand to be by herself for five minutes, and two weeks of it drove her insane every year. She would fill the corridor with inane chatter until the very last second. Then she would come out of Introspection talking a mile a minute, as if the words had built up and were being expelled at extremely high pressure. Bill just wanted as much quiet as he could get.
Kim remained quiet, though, so Anne chimed in. “Introspection came at a really inconvenient time this year.” Bill winced internally, but forced himself to smile at Anne. After all, he rarely heard from Anne or Joe right before Introspection. And he thought it wouldn’t kill him to humor someone else for a few minutes.
“Oh? How’s that?”
“I was just accepted into the Medical Science College!”
“Wow! Congratulations!” Bill was impressed. Acceptance into the Medical Science College was a big deal, and Anne’s family would undoubtedly want to celebrate. Bill didn’t understand why the college admissions people wouldn’t just wait until after Introspection to notify someone of their acceptance, but overthinking things was one of Bill’s obstacles. In fact, he had been ordered to work on it during this Introspection.
“Yeah, congratulations Anne,” Joe chimed in. Bill thought Joe sounded sad even as he tried to sound happy, and immediately dismissed the thought. Don’t overthink it, he told himself.
“Thanks, guys. I’m really excited! Of course, I’ll have to wait until after Introspection to celebrate. I wish the letter had come one day earlier.”
Bill pursed his lips in agreement – what he thought the accepted gesture would be for someone who couldn’t move his head. The far end of the corridor was silent for a moment. Although he was curious about the silence, Bill decided to enjoy it. This was what he wanted, and he didn’t know how long it would last. Also, he couldn’t turn his head, so he couldn’t tell if Kim was simply being quiet or gearing up to start talking.
Anne’s excitement proved too much for her. “What about you, Bill? Anything exciting happen to you right before you came here?”
Bill chuckled. “Afraid not. My college days are behind me, and I work in Statistical Arts now. Enjoyable, but not very exciting.”
“Oh.” Anne lowered her eyes for a split second, then looked to her left. She couldn’t see Joe, but that didn’t stop her eyes from indicating the path her attention was taking. “And you, Joe?”
Joe sighed. “I had a pretty big fight with my girlfriend right before I came here.”
Bill grimaced. So did Anne, but she also added a low, drawn out “oh” for Joe’s benefit. Bill was single, but he knew the pain of going into Introspection after a bad event. A few years past, Bill’s
girlfriend had actually broken up with him early on the last day of the year. That sort of thing was in bad taste, of course, but Bill had learned long ago that what other people said was “bad taste” was what they considered unacceptable behavior from you. The rules all seemed to go out the window when people were deciding how to act toward you.
“Sorry to hear that, Joe,” Bill said. He searched his mind quickly for something comforting to say. “I’m sure it’ll work out.” What? he immediately thought. That’s not comforting, it’s trite.
“Yes,” Anne quickly agreed. “It will work out, Joe. Try not to worry.”
Bill noticed the clock now read 0002. The four minutes had passed rather quickly and Bill had actually enjoyed talking to the others, despite Joe’s bad news. He felt guilty for thinking it, but it was clear to him that it was Kim who had made him hate the brief periods before and after Introspection so much. Trying not to dwell on the flash of guilt, he wondered why Kim hadn’t said a word.
The last digit on the clock changed to 1. The lights in the corridor began to dim. Bill wanted to remain silent, but his belief in etiquette prompted him to say a few more words. “Looks like we’re almost there. Good luck with your Assignments, everyone.”
“Thanks, you too,” Joe and Anne said, almost simultaneously. Still nothing from Kim. The small windows in front of their faces slid shut automatically, sealing them in and making the tubes soundproof. The lights dimmed all the way down, leaving the glowing numbers the only things remaining visible. Bill watched the numbers and waited out the last few seconds in blissful silence. The numbers changed to 0000 a split second before turning off.
Bill tried to pinpoint the moment between the waking world and Introspection, but it was seamless. Light began peeking around the edges of his vision. His eyes were closed – when did I close them? – but he recognized the dancing light of his fireplace. The crackling sound of the burning wood faded in slowly. The background sounds of the forest where the mountain’s tree line began, a few hundred feet away, followed. He listened for a few seconds longer, and heard the slight burbling sound of the stream that flowed down the very bottom of the valley. There were no city sounds, and very few forest sounds. Bill didn’t really know what a forest sounded like, at least not one far away from a city. He had only experienced the one at the edge of the city. No one but the Rangers was allowed to go farther than the city limits. But the combination of the sounds he did know and the absence of the city sounds was enough for him.
Introspection was a little like hibernation, except you remained aware inside your mind. A lot of people found it cumbersome and annoying, since you couldn’t control it. But almost everything else about being inside your mind was like lucid dreaming for two weeks. Nearly everyone on the planet went into this state of dormancy at the end of the year and woke up at the beginning of the next year. A very small group of people who had a specific genetic abnormality – dubbed the Chosen Few by the government – did not experience this state of hibernation. At first, the Civic Leaders had just taken steps to keep people safe during the hibernation, but had gradually figured out how to make the time productive. It gave out an assignment specific to each citizen and the challenge he or she was facing at school or work, and called the hibernation Introspection. The Chosen Few were charged with overseeing the health and safety of everyone else.
Bill opened his eyes and found himself, as expected, in his study. Bill’s study was a tall, round room at the top of one of the corner towers in the imaginary castle where he lived during Introspection. It looked exactly the same as last year; everything right where he’d left it, and no dust. Bill never had much work to do during Introspection; he usually finished his Assignment within hours. But he never got so bored that he wanted to clean an imaginary castle. He liked the two weeks of solitude; it could prove difficult to find even an hour of it during the rest of the year. The government liked to keep people busy, whether through productive activities or entertainment.
He walked along one of the many bookcases lining the walls on his way to the window, pausing to admire the forty or so new books on the shelf. An avid reader, Bill always made time for it even though life was purposely kept hectic. He also had the uncanny ability to remember most of what he had read, and rarely read a book more than once. The books showed on his shelf, and since he was in his mind, he could take one off the shelf and read it if he so desired. But he liked seeing the collection more than he liked the idea of re-reading any of them while he was free from ordinary time constraints.
Rather, he was looking forward to adding to the castle he had been building all his life. Looking out the window, he admired the tower he had built on the northwest corner of the keep last year. His study, made of the tower on the southwest corner, was one of the oldest parts of the castle, and where he generally began his Introspection. Now that the NW tower was complete, he could begin working on the secret passageway he had imagined putting between that tower and the dungeon deep in the basement.
His Introspection assignment came first, however. Bill had received his Assignment like everyone did, printed on a plain piece of paper in an official envelope. His had said, very simply, “Work on not overthinking things that do not require it.” Nothing to it, he thought. He sat in a meditation chair that looked and felt exactly like the real one in his apartment, closed his eyes, and began to clear his mind.
Kim opened her eyes on a dark cell. There was just enough room for a creaky trundle bed and a nightstand. There was no door or window, and the only light came from an old TV atop the nightstand. Seated on the bed, Kim felt the springs through the thin mattress. Her usual sense of dread mixed with anger crept up her spine. In previous years she didn’t fight it, since there was no escape and nothing to do. This year, though, she fought it. She had a way out this time, and she didn’t want her emotions crippling her.
Grabbing the remote, Kim experimentally pushed a few buttons. The light coming from the TV was just static, and that didn’t change. She pushed the mute button and was rewarded with a loud blast of white noise. “At least the sound works,” she said to herself, and adjusted it down. It had taken her nearly two days to conjure the damn thing up in her imagination last year, so she hadn’t expected anything different.
“Well, Kim, you’d better get it working,” she said to the black & white fuzz staring back at her. “The plan begins in an hour, ready or not.” Kim closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind. Normally she failed; she had little patience for the slow process of meditation. Today, though, she found that her eagerness to circumvent the system helped her focus on the task. Getting to talk to her friends would be a nice bonus, too.
It took several hours, but Kim managed to imagine her videogame console, controller and headset in vivid detail. She felt it shouldn’t have been so hard – she had been playing games on her real console when the Chosen Jerks dragged her away from her home – but she was happy to have succeeded in bringing it into her mind. She pressed the power button and was rewarded with the welcome screen from her favorite role-playing game. Instead of her normal user ID and password, she entered the special one she had created just for Introspection.
The screen placed her in a bar in the middle of a futuristic city. Kim looked around and saw three likely candidates sitting at a table. One of them waved at her. “Hi guys!” she called back. Anger and dread melted into excitement, and Kim no longer noticed the dark cell around her.
Anne opened her eyes on the school library. Her first thought was that this had to go. It had seemed like a good idea for the past two years, as she had been focused on getting into the Medical College. It was just easier to do her assigned “homework” in a place where she was used to doing homework. Now that she knew she was in, the thought of spending any more time in a library made her feel queasy.
She squealed with glee, being reminded of her success. She had worked hard and sacrificed much in service of her difficult goal. Anne knew that the next few years would be more of the same at a higher level and in a different place, but for now she could just be happy that she had been awarded one of the coveted slots in the College. Maybe having two weeks to relax and enjoy my success isn’t such a bad thing, she thought. Outside of Introspection, she would probably get to celebrate for one day, and then be expected to start meeting with advisors right away. Higher-echelon students weren’t given a lot of time off.
Having decided that she wanted a vacation, Anne returned to the first task at hand – replacing the library with something more appropriate. In a flash, the library was gone. In its place stood a small cabin on a beach. One definite advantage to all the training her brain had undergone was the ability to think quickly. The cabin was furnished quite sparsely. Anne didn’t imagine she would be using the imagery again next year, so she didn’t feel the need to decorate. She did, however, have a small table in the kitchen. She sat down at it and unfolded the paper that held this year’s Introspection assignment. It read, “Learn to balance work and recreation. This will be much more important as you study Medicine.”
Anne laughed. Surely learning to relax wouldn’t be that hard. Would it?
Joe sat on the dock, staring out at the unusually calm water. He felt anything but calm. Not only did he have a bad fight with his girlfriend right before Introspection, his Assignment was also at odds with his choice of recreation.
Fishing was not something done for fun, at least not in Joe’s time. He had read old books and magazine articles about the activity, entranced by the thought that people had once done it for sport. There used to be lots of different kinds of fishing, at least according to the materials he read. Now there was only one kind – the industrial type that was a vocation and was hard work Fishers did to help feed their fellow Citizens.
When he had first read about fishing, Joe had wanted nothing more than to do it for a living. Not understanding what the job entailed, he had even requested to do it as a job while he was still in school. He had been denied, of course, since his skills lay elsewhere. As a compromise, he had spent each Introspection doing the kind of recreational types of fishing he had read about: fresh- water fishing in lakes, fly fishing in rivers, and deep-sea fishing.
Now, his assignment was to work on, as only the Civic Leaders could word it, “not desiring stations in life different from the one granted you.” He wondered how they had known. After all, there was an unwritten understanding that people tried to finish their Assignments as quickly as possible so they could relax the rest of the time. Joe didn’t talk about what else he did in Introspection – no one did. If the Civic Leaders ever found out the Assignments didn’t take two weeks to finish, they would surely find a bunch of other stuff to make the citizens do. He hoped the government wasn’t in his head, and thought about his fight with his girlfriend. Looking despondently at the rowboat tied to the dock, he sighed and asked himself if he should even bother.
Jordan settled down at his computer, double-checking that the last wing was dark, all mind links were operational, and all vital statistics were normal. Kelly joined him a short moment later.
“Is it me, or does that last one always cause the most trouble?” Kelly asked.
“Kimberly? Yes. She’s always been a fighter. Today was actually easy.”
“She did seem to quiet down pretty quickly this time.”
“That’s right, you’ve only seen her performance once before. Every other year was like last year.”
“You don’t find it strange that she’s acting differently this year?”
“A little. I just hope she’s beginning to accept it. It’s not like she can delay it, or skip it altogether.” Jordan changed the subject. “Alright, let’s get your system checks done.”
Bill stared into his fireplace, frustrated. He could usually breeze through his Introspection Assignment on the first day, and spend the rest of his time relaxing and working on his castle. It was now the morning of the second day, and he didn’t feel like he was any closer to completing his task.
I don’t get it, he thought. This was so much easier last year, when the assignment was simply to stop taking work things personally. The line between work and home is quite clear. This sure isn’t.
What do they mean by overthinking anyway? Is that what I’m doing right now? Bill stood up and began to pace around the study, contemplating his riddle. If I stop thinking about it and just go work on my castle, will I be completing my assignment or ignoring it?
Bill had walked around his study once and had begun a second lap when he spotted a book he thought might help him. Here in the castle in his mind the book was a perfect specimen, bound in leather with gold flake in the embossed letters of the title and gilding on the edges of the pages. In real life, the book was a tattered third-generation photocopy bound with binder clips and hidden in a false bottom in one of his dresser drawers.
He could have bought a nice soft-cover copy at the bookstore any time he wanted. The government permitted books like this to be published in a show of its openness and willingness to entertain ideals different from its own. However, most people understood that those who openly purchased such books and discussed their ideas also happened to be those who never progressed beyond lower level jobs in society. Bill was curious about this subject, but wanted to explore it away from the prying eyes of the people who controlled his station in life. The book’s title was Solitude and the Introverted Individual. Bill had read it several times, and could probably read most of it here in his study if he so wished. But he didn’t need to open it. His mind called up the various passages he thought were relevant to his conundrum. He returned to his seat and stared into the fire once more, remembering what the book had to say about him and his habit of thinking.
Kim worked the video game controller, guiding her avatar toward the table at which her friends sat. “Sorry I’m late, guys. I guess you had an easier time of it than I did.”
One of the others spoke up. “Before we do anything else, let’s agree not to use our real names or our usual screen names. You never know, they might figure out what we’ve done.” Kim didn’t think anyone would, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.
“Fine,” Kim said. “I’ll be Azaroth.” “Leviathan.”
“Excellent!” Kim sat down. “What say you, Aphrodite? What quest shall we begin?”
“Well, we’re starting over, aren’t we? Let’s go pick some battles with the computer characters so we can build up our strength points and get some weapons.” The suggestion was met with enthusiasm from the other players, and they left the bar together. Kim was positively giddy. This year – finally – Introspection wouldn’t drive her crazy.
On the screen, Kim and her group arrived at one of the squares set up for battles between rivals. They prepared to face off against four generic avatars selected by the game. Lying beside her on her bed in her small, dark cell was a forgotten piece of paper containing her Introspection Assignment. It read, as it had for several years, learn how to be alone for short periods of time aside from sleep.
Anne strolled along the beach, collecting various shells and sand dollars as she went. Aware that her own mind had created them for her to find, she tossed them all back into the water. She had been trying to relax, but was finding it difficult to do so. As a star student on track to be a doctor, she hadn’t really ever had time to decide what to do for fun. Even designated break periods from school had been filled with activities.
She had tried briefly to imagine a young man into existence, thinking a good way to relax would be to have one of those summer romances she had heard about from the other girls. Of course, it was impossible. There was something about Introspection that simply wouldn’t allow anyone to have company for the fortnight. Anne decided it was just as well. Summer romances were for the less intelligent girls who got to travel on their breaks.
“FAILURE!” The word boomed across the sky, startling Anne. She glanced up, puzzled. “You’re gonna fail!” the voice said, fading out even as it spoke. Anne brushed the thought away. People who got as far as the medical college weren’t allowed to fail. Still, she wondered how another voice had gotten into her head.
She made a mental note to inform the techs once Introspection was finished for the year. It was possible some of the soundproofing material needed to be replaced. She smiled to herself and focused on a happy thought for a few minutes. As a Medical Student, she knew the technicians would take her seriously when she brought up the issue. It wasn’t all bad.
Joe lay in his rowboat, looking at the sky with unfocused eyes. He had cast off from the dock, thinking that fishing would help clear his head. Instead, he had simply been drifting for hours – maybe days – feeling miserable about his station in life and about being told to stop desiring anything different. He didn’t mind his station, even though it was considered a low one in society. Road maintenance was a necessary and valuable service, and it kept him in good shape.
Several months ago, Joe had met his girlfriend Shelley, and was surprised to find that she didn’t judge him for having such a low station in society. He had been thinking that he could be happy with his life if he could spend it with her, and fishing for two weeks out of the year. Now the government was implying that his pastime during Introspection was inappropriate, and he had no idea whether he would still be together with Shelley after Introspection was finished.
“LOSER!” The shout startled Joe, causing him to sit up in his rowboat.
“What the hell was that?” Joe asked himself. He looked around, but thought that the voice had come from the sky.
The voice continued. “You’re gonna die alone!” It trailed off with some maniacal laughter, unmistakably female.
“Shelley?” Joe called. No, it couldn’t possibly be her, he thought. Everyone is alone during Introspection. Still, he was spooked. He picked up his oar and began to paddle back toward the dock.
Jordan pushed away from his terminal, blinking his eyes rapidly, and stood up. “I’m going for a walk.”
Kelly waved her acknowledgment without looking up. The Facility expected the techs to man their stations non-stop in overlapping shifts – eight hours on one terminal, eight hours on two terminals while your partner slept, and eight hours sleeping – but it was nearly impossible. Jordan was in the habit of taking short walks in the wings whenever the screens got blurry.
The relative darkness in the wings was almost like closing your eyes. With nothing on which to focus, your eyes could rest and be ready to get back to work in just a few minutes. It was also a good way to remind yourself that all those graphs you were monitoring from computer screens represented real people. The majority of the population relied on you to protect them while they were literally helpless.
His eyes rested, Jordan returned to the control room. Two graphs were blinking orange. He hurried back to his seat. “Kelly! Didn’t you see this?”
Kelly stood up. “I’m sorry, Jordan. I didn’t want to make a fuss over a Code Orange. Is it a nutrient imbalance? Do you want me to check the tubes?”
“I don’t know, maybe. I can’t tell what it is just yet. But it’s Anne and Joe, at the end of Wing Seven.”
“Across from Kimberly.”
The sound of laughter startled Bill from his rumination. He was pretty sure it wasn’t his voice he heard, and he was also sure he shouldn’t be able to hear anyone else’s. He never had in any of the previous Introspections. But that wasn’t all that was weird. The laughter wasn’t mirthful; it sounded like an evil cackle.
When he didn’t hear it again, he shrugged and went back to remembering what his book had to say about the thought processes of introverted individuals. For years he had thought something was wrong with him because he was quiet and was hardly ever the first to raise his hand in class. His instructors had all labeled him as a slow, unintelligent student even though his grades were always above average. In fact, the main reason his grades suffered, according to his instructors, was that he didn’t fully participate in group activities.
Trying his best to overcome his deficits, Bill had spent loads of money and time reading all the books recommended to him by well-meaning peers and instructors. These books had promised to turn him from the shy, reticent boy he was into an outgoing glad-hander who was successful and well liked. He diligently worked on being someone other than who he felt he was, and by the time he was done with his secondary education he had fooled everyone around him enough to be admitted to the Statistics and Actuarial College.
The College had been a reprieve. Once he was in, all the noisy, unsolicited advice from others stopped. Since only about 20% of the population was admitted to any college, you were considered a success just to get that far. College life was different, too. Suddenly no one cared how well you did in group activities or how much you socialized with others. The work was demanding, so your instructors expected you to spend most of your waking moments studying.
When he had happened upon Solitude and the Introverted Individual in college, he had devoured the book in a single night. The book had made him feel human again. Like all the time he had spent turning himself into a different person had been wasted. Of course, he had still tried to fake it from time to time, but he had gradually found that when you worked in Statistics it wasn’t really required. People expected Statisticians to be awkward and socially inept, and tended to think those characteristics were hallmarks of higher intelligence and education.
The book had also helped him realize that the neural pathways thoughts took in his mind were longer. His teachers before college had always thought him a slow thinker, when the truth was that he was actually a long thinker. When Bill had to think on his feet, his answers were never as well thought out and elegant as he would like. It was only when he was given enough time that his true intelligence could shine through.
Maybe that’s it, Bill thought. I’m not really overthinking my assignment. I guess I should…
“HAHAHA! YOU SUCK!” The maniacal laughter interrupted his thoughts yet again.
“Dammit,” Bill muttered. His annoyance sped up his thought process this time, and he slammed an invisible dome over his castle and the surrounding area. He walked to the window and listened for a few minutes to make sure it was keeping the sound out. Satisfied that the dome was working, he turned back to his chair.
Halfway back to it, his previous thought finished itself. He was done worrying about his Assignment. He didn’t think too much – he was a Statistician and did the exact right amount of thinking. He smirked and headed for the stairs. It was time to begin working on the secret passageway.
Both techs were watching Jordan’s screen, trying to figure out what was going on with Joe and Anne’s fluctuating readings. They couldn’t make heads or tails of them, so Kelly was about to return to her own screens. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a spike in Bill’s readings.
“Hey, isn’t that the guy next to Kimberly?” Kelly said. “Yes, it’s…”
“Why’d he spike?”
The interruption annoyed Jordan, but he let it slide. Kelly was new enough to the job that he didn’t think she had seen anomalies like this yet. “Judging from that brain chemistry mix, it appears something pissed him off. But only momentarily. Strange.”
“Why’s that strange?”
“Bill never has any fluctuations. He’s the only one in that group who consistently handles Introspection well. Joe and Anne aren’t quite that calm, but I don’t recall their readings ever being this bad. Of the group at the end of Wing Seven, the only person who seems to have normal readings is…Kimberly.”
“Wait – Kimberly is normal?”
“Yes…and she’s the one person who shouldn’t have normal readings!” Jordan jumped out of his chair. “Will you—” “I got it. Go.” Kelly waved him back out into the corridors.
Jordan returned a few minutes later, looking puzzled. “Any changes, Kelly?”
“Not really. Bill leveled out, but Joe and Anne are still bouncing around a little. What’d you find?”
“It’s hard to explain. It’s almost like a leak.”
“What? The gel’s leaking?”
“No, not an actual leak. A brainwave leak.”
It was Kelly’s turn to look puzzled. “Brainwave leak? What in the Emperor’s name are you talking about?”
“I’m not sure yet. But one of Kimberly’s cables isn’t attached directly to her tube. It’s attached to a small cylindrical device, and that’s attached to the tube. What if she found a way to circumvent Introspection?”
Kelly shook her head. “No one’s ever done that. And Kimberly isn’t a computer tech.”
“Exactly. That’s why her brainwaves are leaking. Her first attempt is working, but not well enough for her to keep her thoughts to herself.”
“I don’t know, Jordan. That seems…improbable. It’s probably just something the mechanics use to patch cables when they break.”
“I’m going to look into it anyway.” He looked at his watch. “I have a few minutes before I have to sleep. I’m going to send out a general message to the other techs, to see if anyone else is having the same problem.” Sitting down, he tapped out a quick query and sent it to all of the other technician teams supervising other wings in the Facility. “Wake me up if someone responds positively.”
“Are you sure?” Jordan nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Have a good sleep.”
Kim was having the time of her life. She wished she’d thought of this sooner. When she was awake, she would have to stop socializing or gaming for a number of reasons that annoyed her: work, meals, sleep. Here inside her own head, she needed none of those things. She didn’t even feel the normal protests from her body from sitting in front of her television screen, hunched over the controller in her hands, for hours on end.
In the game, her crew had just finished vanquishing another computer-generated crew in a rather lengthy battle. The usual insults were flying, despite the computer’s inability to answer them.
“Here lie some pitiful losers!”
“No Valhalla for you! Hahahaha!”
“Are there no more worthy opponents?”
Zeus suggested celebrating the victory at a local tavern. Kim/Azaroth didn’t really care for these breaks. The food & drink weren’t real, and here in Introspection she didn’t need a break. But the others seemed to need to mark the occasion with a rowdy bar scene, so she didn’t make a fuss. She could still socialize with the others, so it wasn’t all bad.
Kelly read through the message quickly. It wasn’t from any of the other supervising techs; it was from the Facility Head. She crossed the room and knocked on the side of Jordan’s sleep capsule. He rubbed his eyes and peered out. Kelly tilted her head toward Jordan’s terminal.
Anne awoke with a start, nearly falling out of her hammock. She was surprised to find that she was able to nap during Introspection. She had never done it before; Introspection had, for the past several years, been a solid two weeks of study. Like Bill, she knew that any book she opened would simply reflect the knowledge she was able to retain in her mind. But she had found a way to make it useful, by reading the different Medical textbooks she had on the shelves and taking note of any pages that appeared blank or too fuzzy to read. When Introspection ended, she would review that material as quickly as possible to fill the gaps in her knowledge.
Reflecting upon her habits of Introspections past, she felt guilty. It was more reflex than anything. After all, she had passed all of the exams. There was no reason to study, at least until next year when she would undoubtedly be deep into more advanced studies. She briefly considered trying the library anyway, just to make sure her knowledge and memories were intact.
No, Anne told herself, you’re supposed to be learning to relax. A quick internal argument ensued, with Anne arguing that napping in a hammock near a beach during Introspection qualified as relaxed, so her Assignment was complete and she could do whatever she wanted; and Anne arguing right back that changing back to the library and studying, especially when it wasn’t necessary, would mean that she hadn’t learned a thing. The second Anne eventually won the argument, and turned her thoughts to finding something else relaxing to do for the rest of the fortnight.
Joe floated in the middle of the lake, lying in the boat and staring at the sky. The lake was quiet, and the air above it was still. He had wondered briefly why he hadn’t heard any fish bumping into the boat, or breaching the invisible border between their world and his. But then he remembered that he was in his mind, and there would be no fish in the lake until he cast his line. The thought made him a little sad.
He didn’t have any idea how much time had passed. He had never really tried to measure time in Introspection; he just fished until he woke up in the tube. This time, his mind kept going over the fight he and Shelley had right before leaving for the Facility, occasionally peppered with the taunts he had heard earlier that… Day? Week? He wasn’t even sure it hadn’t been Shelley’s voice anymore. So, lacking any desire to fish or work on his Assignment, he stared at the sky and waited.
Bill was nearly finished with the secret passageway, and was enjoying its addition to the rest of the castle. He didn’t suppose it would have made much sense in the real world, connecting a tower directly to the dungeon, but it suited him. Castles in the real world were relics of an age far past, and their floorplans didn’t make sense in the modern world either.
At one point during his work he had let the dome over his idyllic domain come down, and had completed a long section of hidden corridor without interruption. However, he soon realized his mistake when insults were shouted at him from all directions of the sky. The disturbance had broken his concentration, and the result was the collapse of several feet of stone corridor. Annoyed at having to rebuild it, Bill put the dome in place again and kept it there. It took a little bit of his concentration to keep it in place, but he figured it was well worth the energy to be able to focus on his work.
He had also been resisting the urge to make up for lost time by simply imagining the passageway into place. Normally he didn’t feel such an urge; the work was what he enjoyed. And although he didn’t have any way of quantifying it, he had a gut feeling that doing the work slowly and by hand somehow made it more permanent in his mind. Outside of Introspection, he even had an occasional dream featuring his castle. But he had already done the work once by hand, so Bill allowed himself the luxury of imagining the stones back in place. His annoyance at the interruption remained, but he found himself happier making progress instead of doing the task a second time.
Jordan wrinkled his nose at the foul odor permeating the room. Kimberly was a slob, and Jordan assumed that half of the food in the containers scattered throughout the house had been rancid before Introspection began. The other half was catching up rather quickly. The object of his study, however, was the television on the opposite wall. It was still on, but that wasn’t unexpected. The officers had to physically tear Kimberly away from her video games every year, so it followed that no one would have turned off the electronics.
The odd thing was that there appeared to be a game being played on the screen. The game console was still on as well, but no one was playing. At least, no one in Kimberly’s house was playing. Jordan tried to figure out if the Facility Head knew what he would find when ordering him to leave the Facility and inspect the house. Had someone else tried something similar in the past? Kelly was correct; no one had ever done it before. But had someone attempted it? Or was the Facility Head simply much smarter than the rest of the Staff?
Jordan turned his thoughts back to the question at hand. It’s an online game, he thought. They could all be playing from somewhere else. But where? Not anyone else’s house. Everyone except for we Chosen Few is in a tube.
Abandoning that line of thought, Jordan checked carefully behind the television. The usual cords connected the television to the console, the console to the internet, and the power to both. He traced each cord from one end to the other, ending at the internet wall connection. “Aha!” he said out loud to the empty room. In between the cable and the wall connection was another small cylinder.
He had been instructed not to dismantle or disturb anything, so he made a mental note and headed back to the Facility. He didn’t know what the cylinders were – computer hardware wasn’t his specialty – but he understood it wasn’t coincidence.
Back at the Facility Jordan checked in with Kelly first, despite his strong urge to go directly to the Facility Head’s office. “Any updates?”
Kelly looked up from her monitors. “Yes. You have some messages waiting.”
Jordan sat down and quickly scrolled through them. The same anomalies had occurred in Wings Forty Two, Fifty Seven, and Three Hundred Twenty. The techs there also reported finding the same cylinder at the same place on one tube in each Wing. “Ok, now we’re getting somewhere,” he muttered to himself. He stood back up. “I need to go up…”
“He’s on his way here.”
“Oh.” Jordan sat down, both excited that he would get to meet the Facility Head and disappointed he wouldn’t get to see his office.
Anne lazily watched a sunset from her hammock, occasionally sipping from her bottomless glass of lemonade. She was proud of herself for learning how to relax, and only slightly concerned at the idea she wouldn’t be able to focus on her studies again once Introspection ended. She was making an attempt to calculate how much time had passed, without success, when the setting sun suddenly brightened.
She shaded her eyes with her hand, annoyed that her perfect sunset was being interrupted. Besides, since when did setting suns get brighter? She felt a tingling sensation in her feet and remembered that she was actually in a tube. The corridor lights were back on, and they were washing out her simple vision of paradise.
Joe came to a decision. He was going to do whatever it took to fake finishing his Assignment. He would not let the Civic Leaders take fishing away from him. He was going to enjoy what he had left of Introspection. And when he was out of his tube, he would go find Shelley. He wasn’t going to let one fight come between them.
But first, lake fishing. His rod and tackle box were in his boat with him even though he hadn’t had them when he left the dock. The surface of the water rippled, and he cast in its direction. The water rippled again, reflecting a bright light back at him. He blinked, thinking the sun wasn’t supposed to be that bright when he was fishing. The reflection brightened, and Bill’s hands began prickling.
He recognized the sensation, and swore.
Bill stood in his dungeon, beaming with satisfaction at the wall. If he hadn’t just built it, he didn’t think he would be able to see the door to the secret passageway. He reached out and pressed three different bricks in a specific order, causing the door’s mechanism to retract a large section of the wall. It opened just far enough for him to slip through. Inside the passageway, he pushed a lever that pushed the wall section back into place.
The torch on the wall beside the lever illuminated only a few feet of corridor. Just enough to prevent Bill from tripping as he made his way back to the tower. As he reached for it, the torch brightened, growing larger and making him squint. Bill closed his eyes, and felt pins and needles all over his body.
He opened his eyes and found himself looking at an older gentleman. Behind him was the corridor of Wing Seven, lined with tubes. “Happy New Year, Bill. Please accept my apologies for the intrusion. We will require a few minutes of your time before releasing you back to your home.”
Bill stepped out of his tube, being careful not to stumble while the feeling returned to his limbs. Anne and Joe were already out of their tubes and appeared to be waiting on the older gentleman. Anne had a dreamy, relaxed look on her face. Joe looked annoyed and in a hurry. “Is something wrong?”
“We don’t know yet. But I have reports that you three experienced some disturbances during Introspection. We would like to confirm them with written statements from you.” Joe looked up, and he stopped fidgeting. Anne just kept staring at something in the distance, unconcerned.
Bill glanced down the corridor, then at Kim’s tube. Hers was still sealed, but all of the others were empty. He looked back at the unnamed gentleman, who smiled. “Bill, Anne, Joe, please follow me.”
An unwelcome sliver of light hit the left side of Kim’s face, making her squint. This annoyed her, because it also reminded her that she was still in the dingy cell of her mind and not on a plain battling it out with interesting enemies. A memory did click into place after a few seconds, though, and she dropped her controller and stood up. The light meant Introspection was over, and she could go home. Kim was excited – Introspection had actually been fun this time, thanks to the plan she had concocted and that her friends had helped bring to fruition.
As her vision cleared and the feeling returned to her head, she tried to wriggle impatiently. She didn’t feel herself move at all, and tried again. Nothing. As she wondered what was taking so long, her vision sharpened and she noticed several people standing around her tube. Behind them, she noticed all of the tubes across the corridor were already empty. Something was definitely wrong – the Chosen Idiots usually let Wing Seven out first.
“Kimberly 0742?” an older gentleman in a suit asked.
“Yes. What’s going on? Why am I not out of the gel? Why is everyone else out already?” “In due time. First, we have something to discuss.” He glanced to her left. “Jordan?”
Kim watched as an arm clad in a technician’s uniform reached from behind her and deposited a small cylinder in the man’s hand. The blood drained from her face. She was sure the same was happening to her extremities too – this wasn’t the first time she’d been caught doing something forbidden – but the rest of her body was still in the gel and couldn’t feel anything.
The man held the device up and peered at it. “I think we can assume you didn’t finish your Assignment?”
The man handed the device to an officer and turned to address Kim again. “Nothing to say? Well, no matter. We know everything now. Your plan, the other three who were in on it, one of whom works for the company that repairs the tubes…everything. So, to answer one of your questions: you aren’t out of your tube yet because you’re going to have to stay in there a little while longer.”
“No…” Kim croaked.
“Ah. Good, you’re speaking. Yes, I’m afraid so. You see, what you did broke several laws. Failing to complete your Assignment isn’t against the law, but refusing to do it is. Your little escapade is very good proof that you refused to work on your Assignment during Introspection. Then there are collusion, tampering with Introspection equipment, and of course circumventing Introspection. Your sentence is to remain in your tube, under induced Introspection, until you have completed your Assignment to my satisfaction. I’ll be checking in with you every two weeks…”
The man’s voice faded as the reality of the situation crashed down on her. “NO!” she shouted. “NO! NO!” She struggled, willing her body to move. The window in front of her face slid shut and her vision blurred. She tried to scream again, but her voice wasn’t working right.
She tried once more to move and found that she could. She stood up and shouted again. “NO! You can’t make me! I won’t…” She stopped. She was back in her cell.
About Jonathan Kahn – © 2016 Whether Vain Publishing