“Screw this shit! I’ve had enough!” Dane roughly yanked the glorified brain cube off of his head and threw it to the ground.
“Mr. Asher, please retrieve your covering and replace it on your head. The amplified voice from somewhere over the dark stone wall behind him reverberated. Dane had always hated the Counselor’s snotty, superior London accent hidden though it was behind a vocal distorter.
“Fuck you!” He looked down for it anyway, but after having marched several feet away from his assigned position, he couldn’t see it. White fog swirled around his knees, and had mired everything.
The figures surrounding him, already dehumanized by the same isolation gear, seemed like ghosts. In fact, even though he could see again, he remained partitioned from the actual world.
“Mr. Asher, I remind you that you agreed…”
“Shut the fuck up, you asshole!” He was the portrait of yelling impotently at the heavens. “I didn’t agree to anything. It was this or prison.”
“We can send you back at any time, Mr. Asher.”
The motherless bastard said Dane’s name the way Agent Smith said “Mr. Anderson.”
Ash started again down the stone walk, passing the human mannequins, all draped in the same plain, black clothes as his. They all looked the same, dressed the same, ate the same meals, slept the same hours. They were merely bits of hot wax pressed into molds. All, that is, except for him.
Dane’s ears and neck stung, and he realized it wasn’t the frigid sea air (could he even hear the waves lap against the rocks to his right?). Ripping the secured segregation “helmet” off without a Guardian or the Counselor using their keys had scraped away a liberal amount of skin on his neck and ears.
A few of the puppets shuffled nervously as he passed them and one woman (it could have been Helen who he’d met on the transport over to Sanctuary, but he wasn’t sure) even murmured slightly.
Dane was just at the edge of the wall about to swing left and up the stairs when four Guardians (he was impressed that they thought it would take four to restrain him) met him at the platform. They wore black too, except their helmets where white, and their face masks were featureless, reflective plastic. The guards were the mannequins after all, while he and the other “guests” were the true dummies.
He stopped because they blocked his way to the stairs, and there was no other way to go except back to his spot or through the fog into the water.
“Mr. Asher.” Like the Counselor, you never heard a Guardian’s real voice. They always spoke through synthesizers, making them sound inhuman. “You have one chance. Return to your place. We will replace your helmet. The exercise is for your own benefit.”
“Yes, of course it is.” His own voice sounded angry, even cocky, but he was trembling from terror and the cold. He had no promise of escape. He also was hoping he had nothing to lose. It was a stupid wish. “Lock our heads up in boxes while we freeze our asses off in order to contemplate our errors or sins or whatever you call them.”
“Infractions against the State,” the lead Guardian replied by reflex.
“Oh yes, the State. Infractions. I forgot, I’m a bloody criminal because I offended someone, well, a lot of someones. Want to know a little secret? If you let me go now, I’ll do it all over again.”
He expected them to talk him to death like in some cheap psychological thriller. Instead, the two closest to him took flanking positions and jammed their shock batons into his ribs left and right.
Dane’s body convulsed and he tried to fall but his legs failed to cooperate. The world around him became a brilliant violet, then explosive white, and then black.
# # #
“I’ve been a failure at everything I’ve ever done and now I’m about to fail at this.” He had gotten to know the young woman named Helen a little during the trip on the ground transport to Sanctuary.
She had actually volunteered for re-education. Diagnosed with General Depressive Disorder, or what Dane called “the State’s special guilt trip for citizens who detested being drones.”
“Don’t say that.”
He had walked down the short steps of the now-stopped vehicle first, and as Helen started to trip, he caught her and lifted her down.
“Thank you.” She casually brushed a lock of red hair off her face. “I might have broken my neck.”
“Well, almost everything.”
“You know, I did listen to your podcasts, even though they were…”
“Forbidden? Why you naughty girl.”
When she blushed, alabaster became scarlet.
“Move along. Stay with your group.”
It was the first time they had encountered a Guardian. He heard Helen gasp at his (her) appearance (Dane discovered later they were purposefully androgynous).
Dane felt as if they were all being ushered into a horror film, except this one wouldn’t end at the final reel.
The fog was there. The Sanctuary, a State approved rehab colony for the incorrigible, loomed like a black castle at the edge of the timeless sea.
Dane took Helen’s arm and picked up the pace. Best to keep with the pod until he could figure an angle.
She kept talking, probably from nerves, but in more of a whisper now. “You were fabulous, scandalous. The things you said about the President, the Health Minister. I’m surprised you didn’t…”
“I did get caught. Got careless and they triangulated my transmitter. Like I said, a failure. Now I’m here. The end of the road.”
“But what if they can cure us?”
“But we’re not sick, my dear and you’re not depressed, not clinically depressed.”
“My state doctor said…”
“The state doctors are quacks and muppets. You’re depressed because you’re not a sheep, but they’re forcing you to live like one and…”
“Remain silent, Guest…” The Guardian at the doorway into the tomb paused briefly as if consulting a record. “…Guest Asher, Guest McCarthy. You will need to listen carefully for instructions once you enter Sanctuary.”
Ash was about to tell the Guardian what to do with his instructions by way of shoving the baton he wore on his belt up his most tender orifice (Dane kept “gendering” them regardless of the propaganda). He relented for Helen’s sake. Then it was too late. They had passed through the gates of Hell.
# # #
“I’ve failed at everything.” Dane didn’t dare say the words aloud, but they rang in his thoughts like a bell. The box was once again secured around his neck. He’d lost track of time, but knew that weeks must have passed since he last stood on this spot in the fog with the wall at his back and the sea before him.
“I’ve failed.” His thoughts were hazy, but was it because of the drugs, or that they had barely let him sleep for days on end? His ribs still hurt. He was pretty sure none of them were broken, but two or three on the right could have been cracked.
His black suit concealed a mass of bruises almost as dark.
“I’m a failure.” He knew that wasn’t the litany they were programming him with, or it wasn’t supposed to be. He was supposed to repeat how he was happy to serve the State, to speak the words of unity and peace officially issued by the President and his Ministers.
But to do so would be the final defeat, and he’d spent all of his adult life rebelling against conformity, against inclusion, against homogenization.
There was no way to win. The court had ordered him to Sanctuary and there was no reprieve. Not until he conformed, not until he surrendered his speech, his acts, his will to the State.
The State would win. They would always win. Anyone who opposed was subjected to “rehabilitation.”
Those who resisted more physically were shot, or hung, or they just disappeared.
“I’ve disappeared.” But that wasn’t their plan for Dane. They wanted him to start his podcast again, but this time to confess, or repent, and then to declare the glory of the benevolent State. Yes, the person, the man Dane Asher would disappear. Only a shell would remain.
One black leather shoe stepped forward, then the other, then the first, and so on. It wouldn’t take more than a few seconds. They wouldn’t have time to stop him.
“Mr. Asher, please return to your spot.”
He was cold but his blood burned hot. The box was heavy, it would drag him down. Dane had no idea how deep it was this close to shore. He vainly hoped Helen would shed even a single tear at his passing.
“Mr. Asher stop walking.” The Counselor’s voice was louder, more insistent.
He could hear the waves. The stone was slick. In the distance there were running feet approaching, probably Guardians.
“Mr. Asher, you must…”
He fell forward, surprised in spite of intent. Immersed in icy depths, embraced by the arms of a bitter death, he was free. His body would die, but his spirit…
# # #
The helmet was off. He was in the infirmary, or so he supposed given all of the medical equipment encompassing him. The light was low but he could just see one shadowy figure bending over him, coming into focus.
The suit was like everyone else’s and the mask like a Guardian’s, but the voice was uniquely, mechanically his.
“We will continue your treatment, Mr. Asher. You’ve had some setbacks, but I’m sure you will make up for them. We all have your best interest at heart. Are you ready to continue with your rehabilitation?”
“Yes, Counselor. I am beginning to understand now. I apologize for my weakness before.”
“I have been a failure at everything I’ve ever done. I don’t dare to say those words out loud because they’re not part of my programming. But now that I have been programmed, they are so tragically true.”
I wrote this for Photo Challenge #355 at “Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie.” The idea is to use the image presented as a prompt to craft a poem, short story, or other creative work.
A lot of the time, I write to process thoughts and emotions, and as you can tell, those have been somewhat dark of late. This is a pessimistic tale to be sure. In this case, the state wins. Tomorrow, perhaps things will be brighter.
To see other stories inspired by the prompt, visit Mr. Linky.