Phone call / The Anomaly in Subsection Dôn
The sofa’s so hollow in the middle that it no longer needs anyone sitting on it to sag; my hips and back assume a less-than-natural position which complements and exacerbates the white-hot jets of pain that shoot down my back from time to time but I’m not worried about that right now. I feel the wooden upholstery poking my thighs as I face the phone which lies face up on the wooden chair opposite, inviting me; insisting on it. The screen’s been cracked for longer than I’ve had it, and I can’t even flick between the lists of apps without the rows twitching and hesitating, but I know that where it counts, the original function of the fucking thing, it still works fine — and therein lies the problem. I feel like I’m on an extremely high diving board looking down into a deep pool, a notion that’s kind of fitting as the chair is painted a deep shade of marine blue that’s still rich despite the thousands of marks, cracks, indents and scratches on the woodwork. Just like jumping from a great height, I know that this reluctance and the deep trembling I feel in my chest is superfluous, and picking up the phone, swiping the screen, selecting the Phone symbol then finding and selecting Home is just like jumping off that diving board: it requires me to override what’s going on in my mind and trigger the movements before I realise it so that my body has no choice but to go through with the action. All it takes is that one millisecond, that minuscule point of no return so that the receiver is at my ear and ringing before I’ve fully understood the magnitude and consequences of what I’ve done and what’s about to happen; I sit on the sofa trying to summon it, but it just does not come. I let out a forlorn sigh.
“You’re a coward, e.doubleyou,” I say out loud — or do I? I can’t tell — and besides, what difference does it make?
But then, as if controlled by someone who is not myself, my hand reaches for the phone in an unthinking instant.
And at that exact moment, my body stops. It’s as if someone has just pressed pause, and for a terrible, endless moment I’m trapped in a moment of time that doesn’t pass. My mind begins to race. The bottom of my vision begins to blur, and — somehow — flex inward, a little like those crazy mirrors I used to see in the annual funfair. A parting appears out of thin air. Where the phone was a moment ago, face up on the battered wooden chair, I now see a rapidly-expanding blur that consumes the lower half of my vision, and I’m convinced that I’m going blind. My head spins as my vision, seemingly the eyes through which I had perceived everything in life up until this point in time, comes undone, beginning to peel off like someone lifting up a pair of goggles.
The blur has now enveloped my entire line of sight and I realise that I’m no longer sat hunched on the sofa, but face up staring at a wild-eyed man. His oily face is fixed in a maniacal glare, his eyes boring holes into mine. Behind him is the blinding glare of a strong phosphorescent light. He’s leaning over me. I start to breathe quickly, panic gripping me. Deeply disorientated, I muster the strength to lift my head a fraction — it feels like it weighs tons and tons — and cast a glance downwards.
I’m not in the body I thought I was; I see the bare torso of a slightly flabby black body. It’s a woman’s body. Before I can truly process the horror of all this, my attention comes back to the man’s manic eyes as he suddenly bellows:
“WAKE THE FUCK UP”
He then snaps the goggles right back onto my eyes; the room is spinning and I’m panting, panicking and discombobulated.
I’m on the sofa with my right arm outstretched, reaching for the phone. I’m in the living room of a small shared flat on a Saturday afternoon in East London with a scary phone call to make.
I’m suddenly anything but scared.
First they said parasites, then they said pestilence, then debating exactly why the humans had gone underground became useless — why debate the past when there was work to be done surviving the present?
And besides, there was plenty of work: needless to say, the humankind’s priorities dramatically changed since going underground, although their endless zeal never did.
Staying alive became their ultimate goal, one which they sacrificed anything and everything for. This included daylight, the feeling of nature against one’s skin and non-re-ventilated air among many, many other things they eschewed simply because they simply had to survive. They had to keep going. You were branded a heretic for coming to the conclusion that it was better simply to die than keep up the endless toil that kept humankind underground, safe from the deadly insects, plagues and harmful UV rays of the surface. You were branded an anomaly for putting such a conclusion into practice.
Anomalies. Individuals who couldn’t bear the burden of living underground anymore. They refused to carry out their allocated duties, usually fleeing down the tunnels and chambers of their allotted subsections in a futile attempt to escape. They were isolated incidents usually ending in violence.
However, these incidences occurred way too often to be called isolated.
How anomalous then, were the anomalies?
The anomaly in Subsection Dôn was an anomaly among the anomalies. He renounced his duties like the others; he fled like the others too. But he fled with a purpose — he knew where he was headed.
He had started the day at Waste Management like the others: silent, docile, ready to finish his shift as quickly and painlessly as possible at arguably the most brutal and unforgiving facility in the entire subsection. However, at around midday, he simply walked away from his allocated spot, beat his two co-workers to death, and fled.
The corridors and tunnels of Subsection Dôn were narrow, claustrophobic and poorly-lit. In many places the phosphorescent bulbs in the ceiling were broken, either plunging some parts into near-complete darkness or flickering eerily on and off.
The anomaly fled down these halls, his boots clunking on the metal floors, knowing exactly which stretches to go along, knowing where to hide himself among pipes and ventilator shafts in order to evade the security forces which bolted to and fro in search of him.
For some reason, he was not wiped from the security system’s database. At every security door he put his thumb to the touchpadand the door to the next part of the subsection would slide to the right and let him pass.
The VR Therapy Room
He made it all the way up to the VR therapy room, a large hall lined with beds, all occupied. All kinds of people were strapped in, half-naked, goggles and helmets firmly fitted onto their heads. Next to each bed lay a machine which read out a number of stats. All was deadly silent.
He knew it was a matter of seconds before security team would get there, so he quickly made his way to the first bed on the left, a dark-skinned female. The screen next to her bed read the name Lilith (as displayed on the screen). He leant over Lilith, and with considerable effort wrenched the goggles from her dazed-looking, bloodshot eyes and bellowed:
“WAKE THE FUCK UP”
He snapped them back onto her face, then quickly disappeared back down the dingy halls.
The anomaly in Subsection Dôn made it further to the surface than any other anomaly — bar Security— had done before. He made his way to the bottom of one of the first ever access shafts, gigantic holes dug into the earth designed to transport huge quantities of people below ground. They were like giant mine shaft elevators, which in many ways they were.
He ran down the last corridor, making for the touchpad of the door that led to Subsection Dôn’s access shaft, then stopped. He cocked his ear, realising that there was no other sound behind nor below him; no boots hitting the ground, no orders being shouted, just the omnipresent humming sound that had by then seeped into the DNA of humankind’s consciousness. He shrugged to himself, lifted his thumb to the touchpad and waited for the doors to the outside world to open.
“D’you hear about the Anomaly in Subsection Dôn?”
“Who gives a fuck? There’s always an Anomaly somewhere.”
“Yeah, but this one’s different. He got all the way from Waste Management to the Access Shaft.”
“Bullshit. No Anomaly’s ever gotten further than a hundred meters from their post.”
“It’s true! Or apparently true, anyway. He dodged all the security teams who were looking for him. People say he hid in old vents and between pipes and stuff, and he knew exactly where to hide. Proper stealthy.”
“No way. I still don’t believe that. There are security doors on like every floor. How’d he manage to get past them?”
“Beats me. Word is the system was fucked up and he wasn’t deleted from the database.”
“But on every rotation the databases are reset and we get wiped. Are you actually saying that not only was a guy in Waste Management still on the SPD, but he also remembered? So close to being called up to VR Therapy? Bullshit.”
“I dunno, that’s just what I heard. My roommate said she’d somehow memorized the whole subsection layout despite being wiped. The people in my facility think it’s just a rumour though. Ghost stories and stuff. There’s always some rumour kicking about.”
“But getting all the way to the access shaft? Not even Security know how to access that.”
“Any idea what happened to him?”
“No-one knows. Some say he made it out and climbed the scaffolding all the way to the surface. The Security officer of my quarters said they caught up with him and shot him to pieces.”
“Though they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
“If all this is true, looks like there really was an Anomaly in Subsection Dôn.”
The subsections were named after ancient deities and saints of the lands on the surface. The ant farms of interconnected tunnels and chambers roughly corresponded to a geographical position of lands by now long since abandoned.
Subsection Dôn was divided into two main clusters of chambers: one where the humans slept, and the other for what was called the Facilities, where they worked and where every duty contributed towards the sole goal of sustaining life underground.
The tunnel creators, the long-forgotten world leaders, scientists, engineers, architects, understood the burden of living underground, so they included the VR Therapy rooms in their plans.
The humans were to work in their designated facilities for four years at a time before changing stations, each a little more grueling and deeper underground than the last. The promise of the VR Therapy Rooms, where for four years at a time they could forget their existence and live a completely new life, made the toil seem worth it. It was a goal they all strived and toiled for.
[The Anomaly in Subsection Dôn was not an anomaly not only in that he broke out of his designated facility, outwitted and evaded Security and cleared the security doors; he was an anomaly for breaking out so soon before the humans changed their facilities, when he could rise from the foulest depths of the Waste Management Facility nearly to the top of the whole subsection, to the VR Therapy rooms where he could happily forget the burden of staying underground until it was time to wake up once more.]
The programmers from long ago once debated the ethical aspect of the VR Therapy machines. They were a simulation of the world as they believed it was before the parasites and pestilence, and where there was much autonomy; you were born into a randomly calibrated simulation and were challenged accordingly. All peoples’ experiences, therefore, varied wildly every time.
However, another aspect was discussed: the programmers established that if VR Therapy was meant to reflect pre-parasite, pre-pestilence life as vividly as possible, the therapy must therefore be considered as life itself; what was valid in the patient’s VR simulation would have equal consequence in Subsection Dôn. It was established, therefore, that if one were to find reason not to live in the VR world and therefore take one’s own life, the VR Therapy Machines would respond, cutting oxygen accordingly to the act committed in the simulation.
This is exactly what happened to Lilith. Some time after the Anomaly in Subsection Dôn broke into the first chamber of the VR Therapy Rooms, made his way to where Lilith lay, wrenched off her goggles and yelled in her face, the display next to her bed, usually showing her stats in green tones, turned silently red, and her breathing stopped.
Only the word TERMINATED was displayed now. A few minutes later, two of the Administrators, a specialist division of Security, walked down the rooms from the Control Quarters. They located Lilith’s bed, took off her helmet and goggles, switched off the display, and silently rolled the bed away.