Under the Blanket

A short story originally published in the ‘Cyber Pathways’ anthology by Audio Arcadia: http://www.lulu.com/shop/a-collection-of-science-fiction-and-fantasy/cyber-pathways/paperback/product-22540650.html

The wood around the lock broke with a muted crunch, and Billy knew that there was no turning back. Moments earlier he had felt an inrush of emptiness, as though his chest was giving a hollow gasp: disbelief, adrenaline and anxiety fuelling the agonising justification taking place within him. But now his heart slowed from its frantic flutter into a determined drumbeat. He was in the curiously serene moment between losing control and the crash.

He bullied the door open, and stood in the entrance a moment, his eyes making adjustments. Light from the streetlamp outside caught his cold, crystallised breath as it curled away from his mouth. The drumbeat pulsed loudly in his ears, and he stepped forwards into the dark.

At the corridor’s end, he could see the pharmacy shop itself; and through a door somewhere on his right was the stockroom. He trailed a gloved hand along the wall, feeling for the frame.

As he discovered it, Billy turned and took hold of the door handle. He gave only a momentary glance towards the shop floor: his eyes registered a lumbering human shape in the darkness, and he felt a tight grip on his stomach. He froze, hot fear flushing through his body; an uncomfortable, feverish prickling of his skin. His eyes darted again and saw that the figure was still approaching him.

In a moment the man tried to rush him, some rudimentary weapon swinging in his hands, but Billy grasped hold of it and the two figures locked together, ungracefully balancing for a moment as they struggled silently. The man kicked hard at Billy’s legs, Billy dancing back frantically. For a second, hanging over the precipice of fate, Billy was bent backwards, and his arms weakened, allowing the man to draw his weapon back.

Instinctively, Billy ducked his head, planted his feet and charged the man with his shoulder. The man was lighter than Billy had thought; he tripped backwards, and there was a sickeningly loud crack as the man’s skull hit the featureless stone pillar behind them. Billy’s stomach lurched, and vomit rushed up his throat; his body pivoted in a moment, twisting his face away from the scene. Flooded with frantic adrenaline he ran into the cold street outside, coughing and gagging as he fled.

* * *

With his hands cuffed to the table, Billy was powerless to swat the floating, metallic orb circling his head and monitoring his brain patterns. The archivist drone, the size of a large egg, flew in and out of his vision in a steady, quick orbit, capturing a three-dimensional picture of his head and the chemical reactions within it. Around Billy, the walls of the processing cell were the dark grey of wet slate, but he himself glowed under the harsh illumination of a clinical white light. He felt humiliated, the way a wild animal in a circus ring might.

“All that’s left is some final paperwork, and then you’ll be processed.” Billy’s legal representative was a forgettable mask; his boyish, pale face looked barely a year older than Billy’s own, but a gulf of experience yawned open between them. There was no cruelty in the man — he was simply diligent and impersonal, as the law dictated. A thin wire ran up his sleeve and into the flesh of his arm. “Your recorded statement is towards the back of the form. I’m obliged to remind you that its inclusion is a formality — your signature is to confirm it has been transcribed correctly.”

Although Billy’s head, that evening, had been an acutely tangled mess of steel wool, in the sober aftermath of the crime he had recalled its details all too clearly. He nodded, sadly.

A small silver box on the underside of the table let out a momentary whistle, before snapping back into silence. Billy’s legal representative tapped at the wire running up his own sleeve, and glanced briefly at the silver unit, before continuing with his paperwork unconcerned. All legal and judicial agents were required to monitor their oxytocin levels, to ensure an impartial process. If the level rose, they had an assortment of mental exercises to restore the balance. If it continued to rise, their department would decommission them. Billy was pathetically glad that his representative was stable; a minor familiarity was better than nothing.

“Sign your name in all of the highlighted boxes, please,” the representative intoned. The thin sound of paper being pushed across the clean white table felt awkwardly loud. The cell had the clouded silence of a heavy blanket.

With a terrible slowness, Billy lifted the pen, and began to write his name over and over. He murmured the syllables to himself as he did so, savouring his last meal of sanity, until he reached the page holding his final statement. He read it with a strange sense of removal; his own words had been replicated with dogmatic accuracy.

It began with his bicycle accident, and the laborious knee surgery that followed. The historic hospital reports, collaborating his story, hadn’t been included. Neither had the record of his prescribed hormonal treatment, when Billy had been dosed with a form of oxytocin to calm nerves and establish trust prior to surgery. Most conspicuous and damning of all was the absence of the psychiatrist’s note, explaining Billy’s addictive behaviour after the hormone treatment. All of it had been presented to the court, but now that his sentence had been decided, most of the paperwork had been swept up. Billy’s own words were all that remained, and as he’d been told, they were a formality.

With his shoulders hunched, Billy turned the paper over, knowing that the final page would hold the victim’s mother’s statement, with which he would soon be intimately and painfully familiar. The archivist drone, buzzing about his head, slowed its orbit, and gave a quiet, mechanical purr. On a screen in a nearby room, a map of Billy’s synapses glowed in an interwoven pattern.

Billy forced himself to read Mrs. Waterson’s account of his intrusion into her property, and the sudden, unexpected death of her son as Billy had knocked him against the stone pillar. Unflattering, but factually true, this statement would be incanted repeatedly while Billy would be injected with an unmanageable overdose of the oxytocin hormone; his consciousness melded with his victim’s in inconsolable grief. At worst, his own mind would crack like the surface of a frozen lake.

The drone began to click again, and the small light on its otherwise featureless surface faded into red, detecting an unusual synapse reading. Billy recalled a mental exercise of his own, breathing slowly and calming his physical reactions.

The victim’s account noted that this was not the first time Billy had broken into their pharmacy; he had previously stolen an assortment of drugs, and this had undoubtedly coloured the jury’s impression of him. But beyond the first paragraph or two, the statement veered into the deeply personal, detailing tirelessly the emotional cost of Billy’s crime. It dripped with resentment, taking great pains to describe the loss.

“One more signature on that final page, please,” the legal counsel droned, seeing Billy’s hesitation. Billy obliged.

* * *

A lone voice was calling, droning, chanting words that battered Billy’s mind like a waterfall against a stone: beautiful at first, though carrying a dangerous weight. The chemicals swarmed into his veins, burrowing deep into his blood, seizing hold of his soul. There was a glorious full minute, before the overdose began, where Billy was one with everything — he knew the world, and all of humanity; he was boundless in love. He glowed to an unbearable brightness, the mysteries of fellow men laid bare, even their cruelties absorbed in his understanding. He closed his eyes and inhaled overwhelming knowledge. The plan had worked — finally, for a brief moment, Billy had his fix.

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