The invisible sun has risen somewhere. The blare of the alarm wakes him up. Groaning, he braces himself for another meaningless day.
He clears a circle on the fogged window of his 253rd-floor flat. The air outside looks pregnant with frozen mist. Vistas do not stretch before him even at this height, only buildings in the city’s nucleus do. Yellow sulfur lamps illuminate halos in the blackness. Everything seems still.
He gets to the basin, his head heavy and eyelids heavier. He opens the spout and the water gushes. He wishes some things could change, on their own – maybe the transparent candy-red toothbrush, the curvy-edged mirror, the buzzer of the lift – just to keep up the excitement.
The long hand tells him that he should have been up 20 minutes ago. “I was”, he tells it, “but didn’t want to get out.”
“Am I the lucky one today?” He talks to himself but rejects the thought immediately. “How many people in the City? 5 million?” He doesn’t know. He was never good at guessing. “But should be around that number. So probability? 1:5,000,000. Not likely.”
He stares at the mirror, bares his teeth at it. “How are you, stupid? You’ve got yellow teeth, stupid!” he sing-songs.
The box of cereal is metallic, airtight else without the direct sun, small organisms copulate with abandon. He pours the cereal in a bowl. Then milk. Sugar. He stirs, stares, stirs. Tastes. Sugar. Stir. Stare. Stir.
“No harm in checking,” he thinks. Despite the slim chances, he has hope. “Hope is just so powerful. What if I really am the lucky one today?” The unfinished mail from last night is still open. After a pause, he discards it. Then taps refresh on the smart phone mail app. Waits. The 2G connection is slow, but he waits. Stares at the screen between mouthfuls of slushy cereal. The mail’s there, like every day. The preamble to all mails from the System appears on the screen. Almost accepting the coming disappointment, his mind readies the muscles to toss the phone. Day after day, someone else gets the Chance. And that someone does nothing. “The System is rigged”, he feels. “Only the spineless get the Chance.”
The long mail has almost loaded. The name-key would be at the bottom. The day’s Opportunist or Defeatist. Depending on what he or she chooses. Still loading. Another spoonful of cereal. A trickle of milk runs down the corner of his lips.
The name-key finally appears. It is him.
He sits stunned for a moment, mid bite. The air is still. Only the dribble of milk continues its course down his chin.
The bus moves smoothly, it has no rubber wheels, but rollers stretching below it. He has butterflies in his belly. Nerves. He leans out the window. The scarlet grease on the tracks looks like blood. The immensity of the morning’s elation has passed. A newfangled outlook on the state of affairs of the city takes its place. Born out of forced reason. Attempting to give justification to his planned actions.
The bus takes him away from the nucleus, into the putrid desolation that surrounds it. The sky is dark with a perennial, burgeoning black cloud. Curdled out of centuries of pollution it breeds a persistent gloomy shadow over everything. The System is a nexus between Computers and human Facilitators that administer the city. It has no control here.
The buildings around him are falling. They are sunken shells, centuries old and rotted with age. The new buildings in the nucleus are born rotten and worm-ridden. The bricks-and-mortar in them is purulent with swindled money. His money, and of others like him.
“She is the worm. Eating, drilling, shitting, puking her way through the city, corrupting the men and women and buildings she touches,” he thinks.
He closes his eyes. If he goes through with his plan, the Code promises a hearing. If his argument is accepted, he will go free. The tight ball of anger inside him loosens a little at the thought. If not, it will be many, many years in the under-prison for him.
He again goes through the drill he has come up with to keep the motivation going: The whole System is bound by the Code – nobody is above it. Why did she, just another Facilitator, think she could do what she pleased and get away with it?
He thinks of the unsent mail to his girlfriend, of his numerous tries at wording it right. He had saved up to move into a new apartment with her. His ticket to a happy life. Long-term plans. The ‘worm’ laid them waste. He smothers doubt. The ball of anger gets tighter.
“There will be others like me. Someone will see my reason.”
He gets down at the designated stop. Goes inside the gray, gray, black building. A glass door has a keypad next to it. He puts on the gloves as the mail instructed. He punches the code that came with the mail. A timorous hand causes a mistype. “Be calm. Again.”
The door slides open. A computerized voice guides him through the building. The computers in the building are part of the System. He enters the key-code five more times, at five doors. The System checks his voice modulation, his retina, his palm print. It seems satisfied. There is no other soul in the whole building. Only the computers know who he is. The last door opens with just a push. In the room is one table; a large black bag sits on it. Behind the table is a screen with an image of the city’s coat of arms – POWER TO THE PEOPLE. The words are projected in big bold letters and take up most of the screen. ‘Treat the Power you now have with Responsibility and a Sense of Justice’ is printed at the bottom.
As he picks up the bag, the whole image changes to ‘Good Luck, Random Citizen’.
The building is the tallest in the ruins around him.
In the distance, the air of the city glows a diffused, warm yellow. The gentle hum from motors powering the mirrors and reflectors high above the cloud fills the air. Grinding mechanisms track the sun, directing its light under the cloud. Slowly warming the air.
Around him, it is icy cold. Heating mechanisms don’t work in this desolate region. The murk does not bother him much. It would have bothered those who had felt real sunlight even once. Those men and their children are long dead. People are now born in eternal twilight. Direct sunlight would give them cancer.
The roof parapet is broken in places. He finds a gap he can use. Prostrates himself. The black bag has all he needs. He opts to record the whole thing. For keeps.
He zooms in to the point of interest. At a square near the edge of the city, a large crowd of people has gathered. A podium-truck is in position, the platform at its back raised on hydraulic pistons. A table and a few chairs are arranged on the platform. Once-exotic flowers, now made abundant by genetic fiddling, cover most of the table and the platform in a display of victory over rarity and exclusivity. A large screen makes the backdrop for the podium. It announces the new scheme she has introduced – Adept for the Inept – a chunk of all workmen’s savings redirected to the city’s coffers towards ‘uplifting of the inept’. A large sum seems to be going to her own coffers. The cause for his misery.
He loses himself in the vision the viewfinder affords him. He sees the people talking, chatting, laughing, shouting. He knows they are doing all this, but cannot hear them. Distance brings absolute peace.
Then she arrives. The activity in the viewfinder ceases. His eye follows her as she ascends the podium and makes her way to the mic. She pauses and looks at the tall covered statue standing next to the truck. She says something in the mouthpiece, and the crowd laughs and applauds. “Icebreaker, eh?” On her face, he sees smugness. A smugness that has come after being elected for her second term as the Facilitator.
A couple of ragged kids stand begging at the intersection across the road from the congregation. The road demarcates two classes. Two People. The Powerful and the Powerless – the people whose votes really matter for the election of a Facilitator. The Third People are peering out through windows and balconies of surrounding buildings – The Indifferent – they seldom vote. He knows he has been one of the Third.
The beggar-kids are about to cross the road, but her men shoo them away. He sees the irony. The irony is his reason. Distance brings clarity.
She then reveals the statue. Her own image, in ten-foot glory. He sees her lips moving, forming silent words. In his mind, he gives them sound.
“This statue stands here as a symbol. For the Indifferent. I took their money, and used it as I pleased. This statue makes me happy. Some of the money might find its way into the homes of those beggar children too. They’ll be happy. The unhappy are those whose money I took. But no matter, they are the Indifferent!”
Closing his eyes, he mentally goes through the checklist the System asks everyone to make as they prepare for the moment:
1. A good reason? Check.
2. No unreasonable anger? Check.
3. More than a personal grudge? Check
4. Community’s Best Interests? Check.
5. Sense of Responsibility? Check
6. Justice? Check
7. Power to the People? Check.
8. Safety Catch Released? Check.
He opens his eyes. She is still in the viewfinder.
“Indifferent? Enough of that.”
He squeezes the trigger. The bullet travels through the murk at supersonic speed. It is stamped with the city’s acronym: P2P. He watches as the bullet hit its mark, then he quickly closes his eyes and rolls on to his back. He imagines her head exploding, red like a pressurized balloon, spray-painting the white sheets, the genetic freaks of flowers, her men, her goons, her statue.
“Was it worth it?” He doesn’t know, yet. He’ll wait. The forensic geeks will take the bullet from her head, they’ll know it was the work of the chosen one. The System will reveal his name to them. Only then could they come for him.
Meanwhile, he would wallow in his ecstasy, in his sense of justice, a silly smile playing over his lips.
Harshad is a Mechanical Engineer by profession, living in Pune, India. He aspires to be a published writer, and often daydreams about it during office hours. He loves dystopian/steampunk fiction. You can find some of his work on his blog, The Lazy Engine (http://thelazyengine.wordpress.com)