Escape from Tox-City> by Floyd Davis

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The doors slid open at his approach. He squinted as he entered even brighter light. Quickly choosing a reflective wrap-around set, he slipped them on and headed for the entrance. The doors took longer than usual to open as he waited for the automatic debit to his account. Must be a malfunction, he decided. A synthetic voice sounded from above.

`Comitment invalid, please place merchandise in reclaimer on your left before exiting Optec. Central Control verifies your comitment access: non-functional. You' re required to report immediately to Parker Street Medicentre, free taxi provided. Have a nice day.'

Robert was stunned. Slowly he removed the glasses and slid them down the chute indicated. The doors then released him, his heart pounding with fear. He went into another store, this time taking a drink from the deep cooling unit that lined the walls of the drink shop. At the front entrance he received the same response, refusing to allow him to exit with the product automatically debited to his account. He dropped the drink in the reclaimer. Humiliated, he dared not look at fellow shoppers as they exited busily after him. He stood on the footpath, bewildered. The rejection syndrome. He had heard of this. It was happening to him.

How ironic; all his millions of computer-units were useless to him now. In fact, all the comits in the world could make no difference. His whole world tumbled and spun. The air between the buildings was filled with brightly coloured levs scooting in all directions on the city's lev-grid. So many busy people rushing by, intent on something important. Streets and buildings all took on a mysterious superficiality, like some giant game-board with no place for him anymore. He caught the first taxi that came by.


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Reporting for the required Med-check, Robert almost lost his nerve. The sight of those neat cubicles in rows with standby lights blinking nearly sent him out again. Only extreme circumstances could have made him overcome his aversion for that bright medicentre with its sterile room full of machines and the all-pervasive smell of disease and death that no deodorization process could cover. Wrinkling his nose, he pressed his wrist against the ID plate and took a couple of deep breaths as it began routine scans.

`Negative response, biochip defective. Please state name and date of birth. We will then retrieve your data from central-file.' Soft mellifluous female tones issued from a concealed speaker. `Welcome to the Medicentre, Robert, please be seated. Place your hands in the hollows provided.' Robert did as instructed, sitting upright and uneasily in the padded chair, fighting the urge to scratch his closed eyes. `Please relax while you're waiting; your diagnosis may take time. Auto-Doc will now complete your consultation.' The mellow tones soothed him, overcoming his anxiety. `Where have you been feeling pain?' asked a different voice, this one deep and male. `Perhaps you've noticed specific symptoms? Or finding it difficult just keeping up each day? Feel free to trust our patient/doctor confidentiality. After all, you can be assured the World Health Administration offers the best of health care. Our statistics show that not only do people live longer, the quality of life they enjoy is continually improving.'

After electing a non-verbal response, Robert felt the all-knowingness pervade him. Eyes closed, he felt like he was drifting into dreams of sunshine when he heard a childish voice singing in the distance. A vision from forgotten childhood lit up inside his head, his own boy-self picking flowers in his grandmother's garden, singing.

`You are blue sky...you know you will fly..sweet bird on the wing,you will remember...everything,' the childish treble piped. He wanted to fall into the warmth of that sunlit path where sweet blue wrens flitted through gardens of mystery and life was simple, but the voice and the vision faded. Robert thought of his own son, attending the middle to late shift at school. He needed to see his boy, Sparl.

`Thank you for your patience. We now have your diagnosis,' repeated a voice in the background, breaking his trance, and he hauled himself back to the present. `Please collect your Computgnosis as you leave the auto-doc.' Console-light patterns showed end of sequence, indicating the examination finished.

Robert rose to leave, moving obediently to the soft vocal commands, but turning the plastiflex over in his hand, felt his knees weaken and his stomach rise, bringing the sour taste of fear. `REPORT TO LEVEL 5 IMMEDIATELY' was stamped across it, confirming his worst fears. A sense of unreality swooped through him, while the speaker purred on in the background. `The World Public Authority provides the finest health care that can be devised. A twenty-five per cent reduction is offered all this month on cosmetic enhancement surgery. Next month's special includes discounts on knee and hip replacements.'

Robert crossed the floor to the lifts and fluked one just leaving. As he stepped out at the fifth floor and approached the reception station, the uniformed attendants looked up through the clearplex screen with bored expressions. Thin hand shaking, he put his card on the counter-top and waited, wanting to ask questions, but the woman just pointed down the corridor, saying `Room six,' before returning to her desk screen. Turning away, Robert continued along the wide corridor in the direction she indicated, and the door of room six slid open, admitting him before it silently closed. The doctor nodded to Robert from behind a tabletop furnished with a flat screen and keyboard, and gestured toward a levair that rose from the floor to accommodate him.

`Take a seat.' Tensely facing the doctor, Robert's anxiety was palpable.

`I've just come from the Medicentre. Instead of diagnosis and treatment, I was instructed to report here. Doctor?' he asked. Worry strained his voice. `You can be blunt with me.' The doctor looked grave.

`I'm required by law to inform you that you have a serious immunalogical disorder. By recent order of the Ailment Codex you must be hospitalised for compulsory treatment.

`I must be dying then! Am I?' Robert moved the levair closer to the table. His tone became lower, more urgent. `Tell me, Doctor; you can tell me straight. It's that damn biochip killing me, isn't it? The biochip?'

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`There's been negative immune response from an increasing number of original interfacers, Robert. The results of your check-up require you by law to undergo hospitalisation. We allow patients such as you forty-eight hours to put their affairs in order before checking in. I'm sorry,' she finished sympathetically.

`But what're my chances? Isn't there anything you can do for me?' appealed Robert, steadying his voice with determination.

`I'm sorry. It's an unexpected and unfortunate side effect of the bio-interface. That's all I'm permitted to say.' The doctor looked down at her hands, folded neatly on the desk before her. `Comitment activates your comit trading account, your license to drive or fly, plus everything else. The chip is part of you, like cancer is a part of us all, though the average person without an understanding of cytology simply would not comprehend.' She shook her head sadly. From behind old-style rounded spectacles, her eyes glistened with a watery compassion. `You can rest assured we'll be doing all we can.'

`There's got to be something you can do!' Robert protested. `I'm Social-strata-one!'

The doctor checked the screen, raising her eyebrows. `I see you have adequate comits to receive treatment from our best physicians for an extended period,' she said. `I want to make it clear that I don't just want to curl up and die. I'm very, very serious about staying alive! My credentials are before you and I'll invest all, if I have to! I don't believe for one second there's no cure!' Robert vehemently plunged on. `There's something you're not telling me, isn't there? Aren't people dying? I know you must be working on something. If a plague's going to take us all out you certainly don't look too worried. So level with me doctor,' he pleaded.

`Calm down Robert, I can understand how you feel. It must be very difficult for you. Development of a satisfactory treatment has been slow, but there's hope of uncontaminated supplies for all haemo-types arriving soon, in a month or two. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed.' The doctor was absorbed at the screen. `You have no interface anymore, as your biochip is no longer functional, but the World Public Authority will honour your comit-transaction record. I'll arrange total-care facilities for you at the Hillary Memorial Nursing Center, with a bed available from midnight. Medicentre will take care of your account and provide all you need. Actually your prognosis looks good; with the latest care we should be able to slow things down. I'll see to it your name's prioritized for transfusion immediately it's available.'

`Transfusion?' Robert was astonished.

`Yes, total transfusion. We're fighting this as a blood disease and tests confirm this as the most successful approach.'

`Well, I didn't expect a cure like that,' was all Robert could reply. He studied the doctor carefully. `I need to know the source of the replacement blood first.'

`Robert, there's no need for concern, you'll receive only the purest possible replacement.'

`I wasn't worried about that; I want to know where it's come from, before I accept it.' Robert stared at her.

`I can't disclose that; it's classified information,' she said, shaking her head. The soft purr of a machine filled the silence, followed by the snap of a card plucked from the desk printer and placed before Robert. Picking it up, he stumbled towards the automatic door, which slid open on approach.

`Good luck Robert,' he heard the doctor quietly say, as it closed behind him. Mustering all the dignity he could, Robert hurried down the corridor. In the empty elevator he examined the card, fitted with a complimentary `No-pain' chip for his neutran, feeling cheated to find it an already outdated version. When the lift door opened he almost tripped in his haste to get away from this lifeless building.

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He hesitated on the steps outside, appreciating the cool air. The knowledge that he must soon quit this body saddened him. Tears of regret welled in his eyes while a hollow feeling of having only half lived, half loved, sank low inside him. Through the sparkle of his unshed tears; he gazed on the city at day's end, seeing it strangely, as though time stood still. A twilight, fantasy world. Steadying himself against the handrail, Robert stepped hesitantly down to the footpath past an old man propped at one end of a plasform bench near the steps. Shivering and muttering in the late afternoon shadow of the Medical Center, unable to apprehend any passersby with his waving arms, he raised bleary eyes as Robert went by.

The soul-felt recognition of another's suffering brought Robert back to his earthly situation. He slipped his expensive jacket from his shoulders and tossed it toward the derelict, whose simple acceptance was born of acute necessity; this unexpected warmth might save him tonight. Peering up at Robert, he crooked a gnarled finger, beckoning and patting the seat beside him.

`Over here, young man. Can you spare a few moments to listen to an old man's meanderings?' he asked. Robert nodded silently. Faded eyes examined Robert from under snowy brows. `You remind me of myself when I was your age, so much life ahead. Look at me; no job, no family, too old to work. There's no place here for me any more, and yet, here I am. All I can do these days is think about life. There's no one to even tell of my experiences of this city, or to grieve for my life, full of loveless encounters and illusion. `For here, freedom of expression is imprisoned, fear dictates, unforgiveness is its goal.' Waving a skinny arm toward the skyline, where towering buildings supported corporate names in neon tube, the old man's laugh spluttered into a cough.' Assets of the ego, eyes yet too blind to see.' `Though I am an old fool, you know how I know all this? I'm dying. I can see clearly now, as if the truth of everything has become unveiled.'

Robert needed to hear these words. `Old man, my life also feels so unfinished. I am dying too. From a biochip they swore was safe.'

`I remember the promises, the advertisements, the courting of the public vote,' the old man answered bitterly. `Reduced taxation, no more system cheats. No more smuggling, no more terrorism. No more war even. Simply for holding out your hand and taking an invisible implant. I wish I'd never! The Comitment trading system is a masterpiece, a goddamned satanic masterpiece. With the comitment, the large print gave us everything, but in the fine print, we lost our very souls. Look at the people robbed of the beauty and freedom of true life, duped into spiritual and physical slavery, and the uncaring empty city.' He gestured towards the building Robert had just left. `They won't help me; I've got no comits. Funny thing is, I'm glad. I don't want to owe one second of my life anymore to this cursed soul-destroying system.' Robert was amazed, then ashamed. He finally understood. He'd never bothered to stop and listen to others less fortunate, instead he'd allowed material wealth to become the prime objective, at the cost of recognising fellow human beings as people. This clarity brought new understanding, raising Robert far above his personal fears.

A creeping sense of timelessness intrigued him as he looked about in the hazy light, an overlapping endless present connecting everything. With his new vision, he saw his life till now as a meaningless charade; like a giant bio-program with people inventing its significance. He had read of lucid near-death experiences where people became open to different astral dimensions. This must be what was happening to him. He was dying; but instead of fearing for himself, universal compassion for the human race swelled in his heart. This whole situation was so unexpected, yet so perfect in the moment. He caught the words the old man now spoke softly.

`Spirit vision created in the joy of pure love only,' I heard that thirty years ago now. Suddenly I've begun to remember all these things. `How I remember the clean fresh air! I wish I'd never left Mandalaland to make and lose my fortune, but I fell for the ultimate temptation. You should go and taste the pure waters of the earth, blood of life bubbling through the forest. And I bet the sky is as blue as I remember it.'

Robert had always felt something fundamentally missing from his life. He now knew the unbearable truth. Even if there were only days left to him, he felt more like living than ever before. Up in the sky the first of the skyads was becoming visible in the hazy grey. He longed to feast his eyes on the stars that he knew glittered unseen beyond the sky-screen. Another dimension of awareness unfolded new mind shapes within him. Imminent death neither puzzled nor frightened him. All he wanted was to walk through trees again. The old man was right; this was no place for the living. He had to get out of here.

Competitive energy surged through the enormous schooling room, with the latest examination results running as highlighted banners round the upper edge illustrating student achievements. Rows of attentive children interacted quickly and efficiently with the Autocate system, gaining the latest instruction in all relevant technologies. Occasionally someone would look up to check their position for the school day. One head stared, unmoving, toward the corner of the room.

Sparl was daydreaming, imagining his way back into a dream from the night before. In a strange land, he touched the rough bark of trees, feeling cool grass beneath his bare feet. He breathed deeply and freely of the fresh warm air as he approached a somehow familiar group of luminous people. `Sparl, please continue your lesson,' interrupted the automatic co-ordinating supervisory teacher (ACOST) through his terminal headphones. Sparl attempted to regain the sense of the dream once more, but his thoughts drifted instead to his father's rapidly deteriorating health. He knew a classmate's father had recently died from similar symptoms, and he felt a chill whenever he thought his Dad might too. He was unprepared for the quick jolt administered by the ACOST for inattentiveness as it simultaneously boomed in his head, `Attention Sparl! Resume study now!'

Sparl leapt from the terminal, then looked round. Already a burly school guard was moving in to intercept and discipline him if necessary. Red faced with anger, Sparl held both palms upward in a gesture of submission and sat back down, checking his exam results. Ah well, his marks were still okay. The guard remained beside him, moving stolidly back to his station after Sparl forced himself to begin reading: `The Modern History of Communication,' subtitled: `The Teledesic system.'

He scrolled through a description of how `The Consortium' established Comitment to create a perfect world, extolling the virtues of revolutionised communication and its value in education, entertainment and commerce. As he focused on the lesson, the screen displayed a message from the administration centre. `Attention: Sparl Wakeman. Your father is at Reception. You are reminded that from next week you must attend first-shift classes. Dismissed for the day.' A surprised Sparl immediately headed for the exit, rushing into the expansive foyer where his father sat waiting.

`Dad! What's happening? Everything okay?' He hugged him gently then drew back as Robert tried not to wince, regarding his father anxiously. `Hi son.' Robert's face was pale and strained, but he smiled reassuringly.

`Everything's fine, no need for you to worry. In fact,' he pulled Sparl closer. `We're leaving the city,' he whispered. `Heading for the country. Just you and me.'

`You mean it?' Sparl burst out, eyes shining.

`Ssssh!' Struggling to his feet, Robert hushed him, bending over toward him. `It's our secret.'

`How are we going? In the levvy?' asked Sparl.

`Not this time lad. There's a hired `elect' waiting outside for us. Come on Sparl, let's go. We've got a whole life to live, and time is short."

 

Don't come looking for me,

I am man, far removed from thee.

Trapped in this world of time and space

I stalk the pillars of Thy Living Grace.

I hide in Creation lost to myself,

A lonely station; but what else?'

 

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Published in Undergrowth #3 > Tales of the Simulacrum, Oct 2004.