This is going to look a little odd, but stay with me a moment 😉 I had a random idea for an illustration to submit to the Wanderers theme over at john-howe.com – Now the idea was fairly simple in my little head, but needed a little bit of an explanation. I tried a couple of times to write a simple piece to go with it and ended up more frustrated than satisfied with the outcome, and so I decided to write a short story to accompany the illustration. I decided to post the short story after the first draft, mainly because it was more of a release from writers block and frustration than an attempt to write anything polished and finished. So if there are any errors, I’m sorry 😉
Elizia pushed the earphone deeper into her ear but it was no good, she could still hear her parents screaming at each other in the kitchen down below. They’d been arguing quietly all evening, ever since the visitor had left. It had been the same man who she’d seen earlier at school. The one who’d looked at her work pad for such a long time that she’d started to feel like there was something wrong with her work. Shortly after she had gone to bed the voices had slowly raised in volume until she could almost, but not quite, make out what they were arguing about. She knew it was about her of course, ever since the man at school had smiled at her, a smile that had made all the hairs on the back of her arm stand up and sent a chill to her core she had known something was going on.
No one had said who the man was or what he’d be doing there. The teacher, Miss Jaimson, had announced to the class that they were expecting a visitor, and they were to ignore him unless they were spoken to. When he arrived in class the general day to day noise of whispered questions and hushed discussions about a project or assignment faded quickly. For the next hour the room was silent apart from the sound of the visitor moving slowly from workstation to workstation, his footfalls echoing around the room. Twice he had stopped beside Elizia, the first time he had spent only a brief moment scrolling through only a couple of pages on her work pad. Then second time he crouched down by her desk scrolling through page after page, every now and then pausing to stare intently at Elizia. He stood and dropped the work pad onto her desk then started to walk away. When he was halfway towards the door he turned and looked back at Elizia.
“It was all your own work?” He asked, his voice was harsh and his words came out in a rush. When Elizia didn’t answer he took a couple of steps towards Elizia, “well, is that all your own work, or did you have help?” He glanced towards Miss Jaimson who was now standing behind her control desk.
“It’s all my own, I’ve never copied if that’s what you mean.” Elizia replied a little disgruntled. She’d always worked quickly on projects often finishing long before her classmates and had found the concepts Miss Jaimson talked about quite easy to grasp.
“We’ll meet again, soon.” He said turning and striding from the room. Elizia felt a little self conscious as her classmates peered at her over their workstations, Miss Jaimson walked slowly through the class pausing every now and then to urge a student back to their work. She stood beside Elizia and picked up the work pad, for a minute or so she looked at the last page opened then gently placed the work pad back onto the desk. Miss Jaimson turned to walk back to her desk, she tried to think of something comforting to say to Elizia but the words dried on her lips.
The rest of the day passed by in a bit of a blur for Elizia, every time she tried to concentrate on a project her mind would drift back to that visit. She was certain she didn’t want to meet him again, despite his promise that they would. Elizia was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t hear Miss Jaimson tell them it was time to log out and pack up. Quickly Elizia logged out of her workpad and slipped it into her bag. As she walked out of class Miss Jaimson gave her a brief smile, though her face showed more concern than anything else.
Elizia reached the main entrance and was about to step into a transport pod when she changed her mind and decided to walk home. She tapped out a quick message to her mother that she would be late home and set off, the walkways were almost deserted as the majority of students used the pods to get away from school as quickly as possible. Elizia however enjoyed the virtual solitude. Every now and then along the walkway one of the speakers would half heartedly emit sounds you’d expect from a tree lined pavement, birds twittering away, inspects buzzing, wind rustling the leaves. Elizia knew it was far from reality, the speakers had been installed only a year or so ago as originally the only sounds heard inside the Aneaglass walkways were that of the air conditioning fans recycling the air, and the echoing footsteps of people walking by. It hadn’t taken long for the speakers to either fail, or get smashed from their mountings.
As Elizia reached the second intersection air lock she heard light footsteps in the distance behind her, she glanced back expecting to see another student making their way home but it was the man who had visited the class. He was dressed in a long black thick coat which had become fashionable recently, he walked quickly along ignoring both the puddles which collected beneath the recycling fans and the small mounds of litter which encroached from the sides onto the path.
Elizia hit the airlock door release switch and jumped inside, the door whirred shut and she ran through the other doorway as the door was still swinging open the slight difference in air pressure between the two sections was hardly noticeable normally but today there was a definite drop in pressure as she stepped out. Ahead she could hear the recycle fans working hard and the walkway lights flickered above her, litter started to rustle and wind started to whistle past Elizia taking some of the litter with it down the walkway. The only thing that could cause a wind to blow there was a crack in the walkway, but if that were the case there would be sirens blaring all around her. Nervous, Elizia increased her pace and reached into her bag for her porta-vent just in case there was a breach in one of the Aneaglass sides.
From behind Elizia heard the airlock door click open and the wind increased for a moment around her. She increased her pace again until she was almost running, the man had given her no reason to fear him, yet she felt a cold dread creep up on her whenever she thought of him. Elizia looked ahead, she knew this section and could see a fork in the walkway which, if she took the right hand path round a sharp bend she would reach another airlock opening onto the habitat hub. If she could reach the hub she could give him the slip amongst the crowds that usually gathered near the food courts.
Running around the bend Elizia ran into the reason for the rush of wind in the walkway, a small gang of workers all dressed in pressure suits were maneuvering a large curved sheet of Aneaglass into place. There was a barrier strung across the walkway, Elizia kept running, a worker noticing her approach tapped one of his colleagues on the shoulder and nodded towards her. Ignoring the workers Elizia dipped underneath the barrier, she noticed the air was considerably thinner and had a tangy taste to it, she’d not been outside for years now and she forgot how unpleasant the unprocessed air was to breathe. One of the workers tried to grab her arm but she managed to duck out of his grasp, tears blurred her vision as the tainted air irritated her eyes.
Beyond the workers Elizia spotted the airlock door twenty feet or so further along, she crossed the distance in no time, the workers were still cursing and shouting at her as she came to a stop by the door. She hit the door release switch and nothing happened, she tried again and still the door did not move, above the release switch a panel started to flash ‘maintenance mode only’. Elizia could hear a commotion behind her, as she turned to look one of the workers grabbed her by the elbow and leant past her hitting the flashing panel above the lock, the screen changed to a numeric keypad and he tapped in a rapid series of numbers. The door hissed as the lock released and he pushed her through the half open door, she could hear him saying something about calling the authorities but his voice was muffled by the pressure suit. Behind the worker she could see the cause of the commotion, three other workers had moved down the walkway to stop the man who was following her. One was pointing at the barrier then pointing back down the walkway, the man looked up and saw Elizia in the airlock, he tried to push past the workers but one stepped in front of him and pushed him back turning him as he did so down the walkway.
Elizia realized the worker was getting into the airlock with her, it was then the muffled comments about the authorities started to sink in. Without thinking she pushed the worker back whilst hitting the door lock, the door started to swing shut then stopped as it sensed the workers presence in the doorway. Elizia pulled her pack off her shoulder and swung it into the workers stomach, he gasped and stepped back just enough for the sensors to clear and shut the airlock door. She quickly turned to the other door and hit the release, stepping out into the hub Elizia looked for someone she knew but the area was packed with people. Quickly she guessed at the quickest way home and set off ducking into the crowd of people in the hope she would shake off pursuit.
The corridors thinned of people as she moved away from the hub towards home, until there were only one or two people making their way home. Slowing down slightly she matched her pace with the others and tried to look inconspicuous, every now and then she glanced back but there was no sign of pursuit. By the time she reached home her heart rate had slowed back to normal and the thin layer of sweat that had formed on her forehead had vanished, brushing her hair back into place with her hand she stepped into the doors sensor field and waited for the door to swing open.
Elizia would have liked chance to wash and change before facing her parents but she could see them sitting waiting at the table, their plates nearly empty and hers sitting with a plasti-cover over it.
“You’re late,” her dad said looking up from his meal.
“I walked back,” Elizia replied slipping into her seat and removing the cover from her plate. “I did send a message when I left school.”
Elizia’s mother picked up the comms pad and scrolled through the recent messages. “Must be still making its way through the system,” she said dropping the pad back on the table. “I’m sure messages are taking longer and longer to get through.”
“How was your day?” Elizia’s dad asked setting aside his empty plate.
Elizia was about to answer when the comm box by the door buzzed into life, her dad groaned then moaned something about door to door salesmen having something in common with parasites as he walked over to the door. Elizia felt a cold dread creep up on her, she started to back away from the table as she heard he dad click the comm button.
“Who is it?” He asked, his voice already sounding bored.
“This is Inspector Morison from the DCOC.” The disembodied voice said in that same clipped staccato way Elizia had heard earlier in class.
“The DCOC?” Elizia’s dad replied
“Department of Cognitive Observation and Control,” Inspector Morison put in. “Can I come inside Mr Nichlem?”
Elizia’s dad looked around curiously at her mother before shrugging his shoulders and hitting the door lock. He noticed Elizia was moving away from the table and motioned for her to sit back down. The door swung open and Inspector Morison stepped inside. He had removed his jacket from when she’d seen him in the tunnel and the side of his face showed signs of a scuffle, yet he still appeared well turned out, almost clinical in the way his clothes were uncreased and unmarked despite is run through the walkways. From his top pocket Inspector Morison pulled out a ID card and dropped it on the table in front of Elizia’s dad.
“I don’t believe I’m familiar with the Department of Cognitive Observation and Control.” Her dad said looking closely at the ID card.
“We used to be called the Dream Harvesters I believe many years ago,” Morison said he was visibly forcing himself to be casual and relaxed but Elizia could see he was constantly glancing towards her.
“So what do you want with us?” Elizia’s mother asked, she’d noticed the way Morison had been looking at Elizia and she stood and walked behind her daughters chair putting a protective hand on her shoulder.
Morison looked at Elizia’s mother for a moment before speaking, “what did you dream last night?”
“It was the green forest dream, why?”
“And you?” Morison asked her dad ignoring the question from her mother.
“The same obviously.” Her day replied looking confused, “what is all this about?”
Morison held up his hand for quiet, “so what about you Elizia, what did you dream last night?”
“I don’t remember,” Elizia replied trying to think back, “No wait. I was swimming in the ocean as the Sun set, then we had a barbeque on the beach. There was a…” she tailed off as she realized what she was saying.
“Have you looked at Elizia’s school workpad recently?” Morison asked her dad.
“Not recently,” her dad admitted, “the school normally emails the results of any tests.”
“You should,” Morison said reaching into Elizia’s pack and pulling out the workpad. Elizia was about to object but her mother gripped her shoulder tighter and she relaxed. “From what I saw this morning Elizia’s imagination is something of an anomaly. It’s also something we’d be very interested in acquiring for the Department.”
“Acquiring?” Said Elizia’s dad. “You can’t acquire someones imagination.”
“Of course you can,” Morison said sitting down at the table and looking intently at Elizia. “In fact it would prove beneficial to all if Elizia came to work at the Department”.
“Beneficial how?” Elizia’s mother asked, “she’s only fifteen and can’t be released from her studies for another three years”.
Morison wave away her comments, “the Department will take care of all that.” From his shirt pocket he pulled out a small Infopad and handed it to Elizia’s mother, “that is I’m sure you’ll agree a very generous offer for Elizia to be released to work with us.” Elizia’s mother handed the Infopad to her husband and Morison continued. “Also there are other benefits apart from the financial credits; you’d receive premium status accomodation, fresh produce vouchers rather than those disgusting readipac meals, and of course Elizia would be given five days holiday per cycle”.
“We’re not interested,” Elizia’s dad replied quickly.
“Wait a minute,” her mother put in, “we should hear Inspector Morison out.”
“You want your parents to have a nice home and good food to eat don’t you?” Morison asked Elizia.
Elizia didn’t know what to say, it had all been a bit of a rush, going from what had started off as a normal morning at school to sitting here now being offered a job which she knew nothing of by a man who still gave her the creeps.
“It’s not her decision to make,” Elizia’s dad said picking up Morison’s ID card off the table and handing it to him. “Elizia is still a minor and needs her education.”
Morison stood and placed a tiny contact card on the table, “think it through,” he said to Elizia “you could give your parents a life of luxury, and you’d have a job for life.”
No one spoke for a while after Morison had left, then her parents had started to talk quietly in the kitchen, their talk regularly punctuated with glances towards Elizia. Eventually she decided she couldn’t put up with anymore and went off to bed. She’d spent a fruitless twenty minutes trying to find any information on the DCOC off the net but everything was restricted or flagged as unsuitable for minors. Her parents were still arguing as the power curfew came into force, the lights flickered into battery mode and the music stopped suddenly. From below her parents voice sounded louder than ever without the air recyclers whirring away and no music to mask the voices a little.
Elizia woke with a start, she’d not felt herself drifting off to sleep last night and coming suddenly awake she was disorientated for a moment. Out of the shadows her mother stepped forward, she looked tired yet forced a smile as she sat on the edge of the bed.
“What were you dreaming?” She asked stroking Elizia’s hair from her eyes.
“Dreaming?” Elizia asked her head still fuzzy from sleep. “I don’t remember, nothing that I know of.”
“That’s no good,” her mother said softly. “We don’t want to put off the nice man from the Department do we.”
“Dad said I didn’t have to go,” Elizia replied sitting up.
“Yes, well, he needs to look at the long term prospects for us all.” Her mother paused and looked for a while at Elizia as if trying to see inside her head, “and at the end of the day you are the best shot any of us have of getting out of here and moving up in the World.”
“But I don’t….”
“We’ll only go and have a look,” her mother said interupting Elizia. “If you don’t like what you see we’ll come straight back home.”
Elizia tried to think of a reason not to go, but her mother was already pulling back the covers and helping her out of bed. She saw no sign of her dad downstairs, and her mother was not forthcoming about his whereabouts. Within no time at all Elizia found herself waiting at a transport pod her mother holding her by the arm as if she were a small child again. The trip to the DCOC office was quickly over and as the transport pod door opened Elizia spotted Morison standing waiting for them, he stepped forward and led them quietly down the corridor and into a large office space. The office was empty apart from a small desk in the centre and a small cluster of chairs. Morison motioned for them to sit and he walked round behind the desk.
“I expect you have some questions?”he said, his voice softer than the day before as if he was more relaxed in his own surroundings.
“What hours will Elizia work?” Her mother asked before she had chance to speak.
“She’ll be connected to the Net for eight hours at a time, then get four hours down time. We’ve found this to be the most productive schedule and better for the workers health.”
“Four hours doesn’t allow much time for her to come home and see her family.”
“That’s not allowed anyway until her holiday period,” Morison said his voice smooth and practiced. “It’s the nature of the job that she needs to have certain connections to the Net which would prove problematic to remove and reattach every few hours. Elizia will be allocated a seat in the Harvester and will remain there.” He could see Elizia’s mother looking confused, “we harvest their dreams and thoughts for eight hours at a time, these dreams are fed to the Net to be used by the general populace. Having her leave the facility every day would be unworkable, this is of course why workers are so highly rewarded.”
“I’m not sure this is for us.” Elizia’s mother said standing and motioning Elizia to follow. “Thanks for your time.”
“Three weeks,” Morison almost shouted at them. “That is how long your husband will be employed, then you will be moved to the poverty quarters. How long will any of you survive down there?”
Elizia’s mother looked uncertain. Morison stood and walked round the desk to face them. “Just think, instead of moving into poverty you could be living with the priveledged few, none of you need worry about credits or food again, even the power curfew doesn’t apply to the priveledged.”
Elizia could see her mother was wavering, she tried to pull her towards the door but Morison was too quick. “Give her one season here, if she decides she wants to return to school we’ll get her back into the same class and you can stay in the priveledged quarters until she finishes school.” He turned to Elizia, “what do you think, you’ll give your parents a priveledged life for only four months working with us?”
Elizia didn’t know what to say, she wanted her parents to have an easier life, but she wanted to see her friends again at school. Before she could think of anything to say her mother was nodding her head and Morison was leading them further into the building.
“We may as well start straight away,” Morison said handing Elizia a long pale grey robe. “There’s changing rooms over in the corner, I’ll wait here.”
When she was changed Elizia stepped back out of the changing room, Morison was there alone, her mother was no where to be seen.
“Please take a seat,” Morison said pointing towards a small chair.
As she sat down a woman stepped out of a concealed doorway, she wore a long white coat and smiled softly at Elizia. “This won’t take a moment,” the woman said picking up a pair of scissors and cutting away at Elizia’s hair.
Elizia felt up at her head, it felt odd being bald, it felt worse knowing that she’d had little choice over the hairstyle. Morison touched her arm and led her into the the Harvester, she’d not known what to expect really, but it certainly wasn’t this. Row after row of upright metalic chairs all occupied by women wearing the same hairstyle and same pale grey robe. The room was poorly lit, and cables and pipes descended from the darkness above connecting the women by vaious wires to the chairs and the cables above. Elizia turned and tried to run from the room, her eyes wide with fear.
“‘What’s wrong?” Morison asked, holding Elizia’s arm tighter for a moment.
“They’re all dead,” Elizia replied her voice trembling.
“Dead?” Morison said chuckling. “No, they’re wandering.”
Elizia looked confused “wandering?” She asked.
“They’re dreaming,” Morison explained. “Every one of them is lost in some distant place, wandering in their mind for others to enjoy.”
Elizia calmed slowly, she still felt like running but she turned back to the room.
“I think station 3 is ready for you,” Morison said leading her towards an empty chair. She sat down and he pulled a bunch of wires towards her head, each wire ended with a small rubber pad. “You may feel a little discomfort at first, then you’ll start to dream, please, don’t try and fight it.”
Elizia started to cry as the last pad was attached and she started to lose the sense of self and slip into a World of dream and imagination. Morison smiled to himself, the Minister would be pleased they were up to full strength again. He ignored the tears running down Elizia’s face and walked from the room, as he left the lights automatically dropped leaving the workers sitting in a silent darkness.
Elizia’s mother woke from an amazing dream, she’d not thought she would get to sleep but it had quickly came upon her. The dream was still fresh in her mind, standing with her feet in a icy stream being fed from a small lake, across the lake a tall snow capped mountain touched the clouds and Swifts flew low over the lake in front of her seeking insect feasts. The memory of her dream was shattered as the comm box by the door announced the arrival of the courier, she opened the door and gave the courier her ID print for the package. Quickly she unwrapped the package and looked inside, three of Elizia’s old school work pads. She tapped the access controls and the screen flared into life, at random she scrolled through a series of drawing Elizia had been working on then she froze and stared at the screen.
Elizia’s dad was woken by the screams from below, he was annoyed to leave the icy stream where he’d spent a happy time watching the birds swoop over the lake. Grabbing his robe he dashed downstairs to see what the problem was, he spotted his wife sobbing uncontrollably. For a while she wouldn’t even look at him despite his attempts to calm her, then she grabbed the workpad she’d been staring at and thrust it into his hands. Looking down he noticed a drawing of tall mountain capped with snow in front of which there was a small lake feeding an icy stream.