It’s been a long time since the last fiction posting. This one is from ‘Mask-Querade’, Underdog Anthology 12, which is currently loading on Amazon. The Kindle version is up but I’ll wait until the print version appears before adding a link. Update: It’s now available.
This is the ‘future’ story, the other is a plain old Halloween spooky story. I’ll consider putting that one up for Halloween unless I think up a new one. Note that this is not your future, probably not even your children’s. Your grandchildren, however…
Hey, it’s fiction. Not prediction. Enjoy.
One rose early, as every morning, and checked the food cupboard. It had the day’s food as always. She lifted the bags and took them to the kitchen where she placed the chilled food in the fridge and the rest in the cupboard. The toiletries she left on the table. They would be dispersed to the bathrooms later.
The others stirred. She heard them rising from their beds, heard them in their bathrooms and thought about Three. Three was the one she wanted as a mate but she knew Four liked him too. Two was, well, a bit weird. He spent too long thinking and thinking, as everyone knew, only led to problems.
She walked into the hallway towards the living room and this morning, as every morning, her gaze drifted to the dusty hazmat suits hanging beside The Door. The door to Outside. Where there was nothing but death. They had worn those suits many years before, as had their guides, before they had entered the safe place where they now lived. Just children at that time. The suits certainly wouldn’t fit them now.
The guides had told them they were all that was left. All of humanity in these last four. Outside was certain death, and they must stay safe in these few rooms to keep humanity alive. One shivered and pushed open the door to the living room.
To her surprise, Two was already there. Sat on the sofa, leaning forward, elbows on the coffee table, hands over his face. This was out of sequence. It was wrong. It was not how the day progressed. He should be still in his bathroom. One stood in shock, staring.
Finally, Two lowered his hands and smiled a crooked smile at her. “Did I surprise you, One? Don’t I always do that?” He burst into bitter-sounding laughter. “Oh I have so much more to surprise you with today.”
“Why are you up so early? You are out of sequence. Are you trying to ruin the day?” One’s lip trembled. This was outside her experience and she didn’t know what, if anything, she should do.
“I’m not up early. I’m up late. I couldn’t sleep.” Two rubbed at his face. “I’m greasy. I’ll need a shower soon.”
One’s legs trembled. Scared she might fall, she moved to sit opposite Two. “What have you done? You are far out of sequence. You risk killing us all with your non-compliance.”
“Nothing is going to kill us, and we are not the last humans.” Two let his head rest in his hands. “I’m not sure you are ready for this, heck I’m not sure I am.”
“Explain. Quickly.” One looked over her shoulder. Three and Four would be looking for breakfast soon. She needed to quell this lunacy before they were infected.
“I hacked into Parent’s core processors last night. I went past the firewall.”
“What!” One reacted as if he had hacked into the mind of God, and perhaps, in this world, he had.
“I read something. About monkeys.” Two blew a long breath. “Something disturbing. And a lot more.”
“You even being here is disturbing.” One clenched her fists and lifted them to her pinched face. “This is all wrong. This is not how the day goes.”
“That’s the thing. It’s exactly the same day, every day, You, Three and Four just accept it, every day and never question anything. I’m the one who asked the question.”
Two lifted his eyebrows. “Why are we here?”
One shook her head. “You know why. Outside is dead. We have to stay here until it’s safe to go out and repopulate the planet. It’s important. Otherwise humanity is finished.”
“Did it never occur to you to wonder,” Two spoke quietly, his eyes downcast, “that if everyone outside is dead, who is telling us the news? Or who taught our lessons as we grew up?” He looked up and sighed. “Who sends us food and supplies? Why does the electricity and water still work? How does any of this happen if there is nobody to make it happen?”
“Automated systems, silly.” Four entered the room, her long hair swaying around her waist. “Come on, Two, enough with the tinfoil hat stuff.”
Two shook his head. “Automated systems still need maintenance and power. And fresh food needs someone to grow it, pick it and deliver it. How is that happening if everyone is dead?”
Four’s smile faltered. “It… just is. Look, I don’t want to have to think about it. We’re safe in here and we could be happy too if you’d stop all this nonsense.”
One put her face in her hands, trying to stop the thoughts Two had started in her head.
“What’s for breakfast?” Three strode through the door, paused to take in the scene and narrowed his eyes. “Have you been scaring the girls with your mad ideas again, Two?”
“Didn’t we have names once? When we were small?” Two threw his arms in the air and stood. He strode to the television. “Now we just have numbers.” He toyed with the television controls. His voice shook. “I can’t remember my name. Can any of you?”
Their silence told him their answer.
One wiped her face and took a deep breath. “Breakfast. It’s already late and we can’t get more out of sequence. The day will be ruined.” She glared at Two. “If it isn’t already.”
“I’ll skip breakfast.” Two faced the silent television. It would come to life on its own, when it was the proper time.
“You can’t!” One shouted. “You’ve already broken sequence so badly. No more. You will have breakfast if I have to stuff it down your throat myself.”
“And I’ll hold you down while she does it.” There was real menace in Three’s voice.
“Okay, okay.” Two shook his head. “I’ll just have a piece of toast.”
“You will have the same as the rest of us.” One jutted her lower lip. “No more deviation. We’re getting back to normal.”
“Normal!” Two convulsed with laughter. “You all still think this is normal? A tiny home with no windows, food and utilities arrive by magic even after however long we’ve been in here, and we do nothing to earn any of it? This is normal?”
“It’s what we know. What we’ve always known.” Four lifted her head. “It keeps us safe, and you are meddling with that.”
“Enough. Breakfast time.” One stomped off to the kitchen. With glares at Two, Three and Four followed her.
Two closed his eyes. Monkeys, he thought. Will I ever get them to understand? He followed them to the kitchen.
They ate in silence. Two resisted the urge to tell them where eggs came from or to even mention the cycles of growth of cereals and the baking of bread. He had found all this when he had broken through the firewall. It’s all out there, on something called ‘internet’.
After breakfast, Three put the plates into the cleaning slot. They would return, spotless, in time for lunch. Two shook his head. They never questioned that either.
In keeping with their sequence, they returned to the living room. This was the time for idle chit chat before the television gave them the day’s news, then they would retire to their rooms, log into Parent and read the books or play the games it sent to their screens.
This would be Two’s only chance. As it turned out, One opened the conversation for him.
“You said you had damaged Parent. You’d better not have lost my high score. I was almost through the entire game.”
Three and Four gaped. “You did what?” Three looked ready to punch him.
“Relax, I didn’t damage anything. I just got through the firewall and into the rest of the world.” Two sighed. “And I found something we should all know.”
One pursed her lips. “You said something about monkeys.”
“Yes.” Two licked his lips. “It’s a kind of story, if you like. A story about a game.”
The others leaned forward. Two smiled. Stories and games were all they had ever known in this place, so his combination caught their interest at once.
“The game involves four monkeys,” he began. “These four monkeys are in a windowless enclosure, and in the middle is a tall pole with a banana on the top.” He bit his lip to stop himself from telling where bananas came from. It was far too soon and it would gain nothing but sneers.
“Okay,” he continued. “Monkeys like bananas so one of them tries to climb the pole to get the banana. As soon as he tries, all the monkeys get sprayed with ice cold water. Eventually another tries and they all get sprayed again. Soon they learn not to climb the pole, because that will get them an ice-cold shower.”
Four sniffed. “Doesn’t sound like much of a game.”
“Ah,” Two raised his finger. “That’s just the setup. Once they stop going for the banana, you take out one of the monkeys and put in a new one. This one doesn’t know about the ice showers so he goes straight for the pole with the banana. The other three beat the crap out of him because they know if he climbs the pole, they all get ice cold showers. This will only happen a few times before the new monkey learns to conform. At this point the new monkey knows the pole is dangerous but doesn’t know why.”
“No more spraying?” Three tilted his head.
“No need. You’ll soon see why.” Two winked. “So you take out another of the original monkeys and put in a new one. The new one goes straight for the banana at the top of the pole and the others beat the crap out of him. Including the one who doesn’t know why the pole is dangerous. Then you replace another and another until none of the monkeys in the experiment know why the pole is dangerous, just that, somehow, it is.”
One frowned. “But if they aren’t getting the ice bath any more, surely they can just get the banana?”
Two stretched his shoulders. He really needed some sleep and a shower but he knew One wouldn’t allow it at this time. “It’s learned behaviour. None of the original monkeys are in there. None of the current ones have experienced the ice-cold shower. Yet they believe the pole is dangerous to climb because they have been taught to believe. Do you see?”
“Very interesting, I’m sure, but still not much of a game.” Four scratched her head. “What’s the point?”
Two bit into his lower lip. It was time. “We’re the monkeys. We were all taken from our parents at three years old. We were already in a lockdown, we couldn’t see any other family so we were preconditioned to this. We are in an experiment.”
“Oh I might have known.” Three rolled his eyes. “It’s more tinfoil hat crap.”
Two bowed his head. “We’ve been conditioned for this. I’ve asked you if you remember the names we had before we were brought here. I doubt it because I don’t. Here’s more. I remember my parents screaming, me screaming, as they took me from the farm. I remember crying when they put that suit on me. I remember Mary –”
“Oh yes.” Four’s eyes lit up. “Mary was the one in the bubble suit who checked on us every day for a long time until she said she couldn’t come any more but it was okay because we could do it ourselves now.”
Silence fell. One and Three’s brows furrowed. Two smiled at Four. “So you remember something. There is hope.”
Three sighed and shook his head. “Okay, I’ll bite. If we’re in an experiment, what’s the point of it? What’s it supposed to prove?”
“The same as that monkey experiment.” Two stared directly into Three’s eyes. “You know there’s instant death outside, right?”
“Of course.” Three looked at Four and then One for support. “So?”
Two lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “What is it? What will kill us if we go outside?”
The silence hung heavy for a while. Four broke it. “It doesn’t make sense. None of us have been replaced, like in your monkey story. We’ve all been in here from the beginning.”
Two sniffed. “That part already happened to our parents. Our real mothers and fathers. They were so scared of something ‘outside’ that they couldn’t put up a fight when we were taken for our own safety. They were the ones getting the metaphorical cold showers. We are the monkeys who still fear the banana and have no idea why.”
One ran her hands over her face and through her hair. “You haven’t answered Three’s question. If we’re in an experiment, what’s the goal? What is it intended to prove?”
“That we, like the monkeys, can be conditioned. Controlled. We can be held in thrall by a fear even if we don’t know what we are scared of. You know the mantras. Comfortable compliant conformity. When there is nowhere to hide there will be nothing to fear. Stay safe. We’re being… prepared. Conditioned to some new life.” Two gave a lopsided smile. “I think the experiment has been, largely, a success.”
“One small detail.” One leaned back in her chair. “If someone is running all this, why haven’t they blocked you from accessing Parent? Why haven’t they taken you out of the experiment? If you are right then surely you’ve just wrecked the whole thing.”
Two shrugged. “I just got through last night although I’ve been trying for months. Maybe they haven’t noticed. Maybe they haven’t had time to do anything. Maybe they aren’t even watching because they never thought any of us would try. Or maybe I’m wrong about all of it.” He stood. “There’s only one way to find out for sure.”
The others followed him to The Door. Two regarded the hazmat suits and traced his finger in their dusty coating. No point even trying them, they were far too small now.
Two put his hand on the door handle. He hesitated, his eyes closed, and his head tilted back. Was it true, what he had seen? Was this a beginning or an end?
“Two. Don’t.” One put her hand on his arm. “Outside is death. You’re right, we don’t know why, but it’s better to stay in here. Stay safe. We know life in here. We have our daily sequence. Our comfortable compliant conformity. Come back to it. Come back to us.”
Two, eyes still shut, shook his head. “This is the test. Is the Door locked for our safety or did they rely on our fear to keep it closed?”
“Don’t test it.” Four’s voice trembled. “You might let it in.”
“She’s right.” Three sounded harsh. “Whatever risk you want to take, you have no right to make us take the same risk.”
Two opened his eyes and stared at The Door. “Fuck it,” he said, and pushed down on the handle. The door swung inwards with a screech.
Light streamed in. Two stepped through the door into light and warmth. He gasped in delight at the new air, the green around him, the blank wall of doors stretching into the distance.
“What’s out there?” Four shrank back from the opening.
“Are you okay?” One had one hand on the Door.
“It’s wonderful. So bright. So warm. Lots of green and lots of doors like ours.” Two spread his hands, “And people. With sticks,”
There was a bang. A red mist burst from the side of Two’s head and he dropped, lifeless, to the ground.
One closed the door and hung her head. “He was wrong. Death is out there, and there is no escape.” She clapped her hands together. “News time and then lunch.”
After lunch, the new Two was installed. After a few identically sequenced days, One, Three and Four had no idea he had not been there from the beginning.
And neither did he.