Alphanumeracy

The chair, the black straps, and the small buttons on that fiddly console. They were all he had and that defined his life, as far as he could remember. But he couldn’t remember much.

The man said he didn’t have a mind and that he was mad, that was why he belonged to the funny farm. It kept him safe from the outside, and the outside safe from him.

He had received special treatment ever since he could remember. Sometimes the man put a bag on his head. Sometimes the man beat him. Sometimes the man laughed. He didn’t respond. He couldn’t have responded, even if he wanted to. He just wrote. Such was the daily grind.

The man laughed when he did that, too. The words were senseless. Sometimes, they weren’t even words; they were just random letters. Even he didn’t know what they were, apart from a vague expression of an even more vague emotion.

Follow the cables out of the grey concrete of the exercise yard, under the dull, pastel blue walls, through the natural curves of a trampled country, into the city. It’s no different from any other city for miles. The tall, bright buildings; the pale, quiet people; the smooth, ordered streets; it’s all utopian, and overwhelmingly nice.

It’s getting dark and cold by now. The street lanterns are fading into their usual blue. There’s the occasional sound of an insect zapping itself, but apart from that, all is still.

A knock on a door. Two suited men. One wearing a brown jacket, the other a green overcoat. The door is opened, and they are greeted by a gangly man with a plain face. The man in brown coughs politely.

“Hello, Lucas,” said the man in brown, rubbing his hands to fend off the oncoming freeze. Lucas moves back to let them in, nodding at both men in acknowledgement.

The man in the brown walks over to the curtains, as the green man places a hefty suitcase on the standard table in the front room. The curtains are pulled together. As they look out on the fading light, an identical curtain twitches across the road.

“We understand you were very clever throughout your education, Lucas, right up until your graduation. We know you spent the past year looking for a job, and at every opportunity, you were turned down.” Lucas nods. It was fair to say the past months had been overly troublesome.

“That was all for the greater good. This has awaited you since you became qualified. We merely had to wait until the previous occupant of that Post had… vacated it.” This was serious stuff. Nobody vacated a Post, because it was all you had. Lucas wonders where his predecessor had been buried, if he wasn’t fuel.

“This Post is waiting for you to accept it. Will you…?” A piece of paper and ink pad are slid in Lucas’ direction, with a dotted line for him to ink his thumbprint. He does so, briefly scanning the terms, clocking that both men were packing a gun. He is to inspect the camps, whatever that means.

“Thank you. We’ll see you in Eden Tower in the morning,” concludes the man in brown, stuffing the papers hurriedly into the briefcase, as the other man’s fingers were easing off the trigger. “You won’t need to open your curtains again tonight. We can see ourselves out.”

They shift silently outside, shut the door softly. Lucas pants like a scared, wet dog. He hadn’t told them about the dreams; the nightmares in the dark.

A shot is heard from the direction of a twitching curtain, then all is still once more. The cost of utopia is paid – for tonight. How nice.

He opened his eyes. He’d been asleep. It was dark. He’d dreamt about being back outside. How it would be living in society. It scared him.

He looked around his surroundings. There were cameras hidden, but he knew they were there. He just wasn’t sure where. That scared him, too, more than any dream could.

The man detected he was awake and faded the lights up to sharp brightness. Now he could see his padded walls in full quality. They’d been scrawled over, numerous times in numerous years. Scrawled over, not written upon. For these were just alphanumeric characters, without rhyme or reason. He wasn’t literate, but merely practiced in alphanumeracy.

Lucas realises he’s on a chair, slumped, hands gripping the chair’s arms. Last night, he had one of the dreams. But it’s morning now. He changes into an identical suit, and leaves the house. He doesn’t have a bag, a lunch, or the slightest clue. He has been summoned to Eden Tower.

Lucas arrives at the ominous doors of Eden Tower, lit in a royal blue. Rumour had it that a royal family lived on the site on Horseguards Parade, many years ago. Now, it was where the proper, efficient method of rule was carried out.

He scans his thumbprint onto the little pad on the revolving doors, which whisk him in, with surprising force. He’s impressed by the speed they’ve got him on the database. Unless they were tracking him more than they’d admitted.

The doors[1] dump Lucas in a roomy office, with rather plush furniture (by anyone’s terms), and slide down to collect someone from another floor. He rolls into a desk with a firm thud, and a note is dispensed from somewhere above his head.

By reading this, you have fully accepted all the Responsibilities that come with this Post, it read. The room’s cameras click in haunting synchronization. Your first Responsibility is to inspect and report on Harkfield Camp in the North. A cold, metallic hand grabs him from behind.

He swam back into consciousness, with the man holding the belt to his face. He hadn’t felt anything. “You’re gonna get a visitor today,” the man seemed sincere. “Your first visitor. How nice.”

The line between who the human and who the beast were grew ever thinner. He wondered where this visitor would stand.

A high speed train flings a weary Lucas off into the darkness of Harkfield station; or, at least, somewhere with a rusty sign that claims to be Harkfield. He has begun to learn that taking things at face value will probably lead to a bullet in the head.

Nobody else is around, but somebody has arranged a collection of fireflies in jars, in an arrow shape, pointing in the direction of an exit turnstile. One of the fireflies has died, and there’s a spider by the jar, wondering how to get in.

As Lucas edges his way off the platform, a man peers from the corner of a building. Lucas concludes that it must be the camp. “Hullo,” he grins. “I’ll be taking you on this fun, exciting, thrill-packed tour of Harkfield. Do please enter,” he says, blindfolding Lucas. Lucas is pushed violently down some stairs – thump, thump, thump – and there are feet chasing him down, getting him up, pushing him around.

Endless twists and turns later, they stop. The blindfold is removed. Lucas is about to knock when the man jumps against the wall and kicks the door open with an unnecessary amount of force.

Lucas peers inside. He’s shocked. There’s a bucket in the corner, with two labels on: one saying ‘Food’, the other ‘Waste’. There’s writing on the walls, and at first it seems random.

37. t.

1096. crusad.

1692. A.

17c. GB.

1936. Jevv.

47. PAL.

48. sa.

60. mlk.

89. tiananMEN.

There’s a clunk as the door is closed. Wildly, Lucas looks around. Imprisonment? Why?

“Security,” the man explains, “we have to keep both of you in quarantine until you’ve finished talking with him.” Lucas finally understands what he is supposed to do, but he can’t stop staring at the walls. He wishes the man would move from his position by the door.

He looks. He looks again. Alphanumeracy. It doesn’t make sense.

Then he remembers his grandfather, before he was taken away. He remembers how he’d slide out the book from under the fridge. There were bad things in there. “History,” he called it. “We have to remember.”

1692. A. 1692. Witches’ hat. The Salem witch trials. Old women persecuted for simply being.

47. PAL. 1947. Palestine. The Civil War. The only future for the Palestinians was persecution by the Jews.

60. mlk. 1960. Martin Luther King protested against racial persecution.

46. sa. 1948. South Africa. Apartheid. Forty years spent being persecuted by the colonials.

37. t. 37 AD. A cross. Christians persecuted, dying for what they believed.

17c. GB. The 17th Century. A Great British Empire that persecuted those who were not Great.

1096. crusad. 1096. The first ever crusade. Men persecuting men. Lucas didn’t see a difference.

89. tiananMEN. 1989. Chinese authorities persecute those who disagreed with Communist rule in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

1936. Jevv. 1936. Jews were persecuted for not being members of the Aryan race by the Nazi Party.

It was history. A history of persecution.

Lucas turns to look at the thing he’s been ignoring. It’s the thing from his nightmares, his ongoing nightmare. The thing he’d shared a life with for so, so long. It grimaces at him. It looks so pitiful lying there, in conditions that wouldn’t have suited an animal, when such things were farmed.

Lucas picks up a pencil. Now, he wrote.

“I can help, you know,” he heard in his head. He wasn’t sure whether it was spoken or merely thought. “I can tell them all. About you, about how clever you are, about this place.”

He shook his head. Not outside. I beg you.

“But your life could be so much better. You could live like a normal person in normal society.”

What choice is that? No choice at all. Leave me alone. Not the outside. Please. Please.

The guide bursts in. He’s blindfolded again. There’s no time to say goodbye.

But he doesn’t need to. He’s done all he ever can for the prisoner. He lives in his horrible world, and the thing lives in its own. They would have it no other way.


[1] These doors were, as I’m sure you can tell by now, not usual doors. To explain them in old technology, they were an interesting combination between revolving doors and elevators. The spinning action combined with the vertical movement was intended to maintain the secrecy of where Government employees worked – it was even secret to them. The architects and builders, who knew the layout of each floor, had been killed at point of sale.

By Gregor Smith

Photo via (cc) Flickr user sunside (Markus Mayer)

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