The people are still told that these homes are temporary. That one day they will return to the memories of their old lives, and that things will be bright and beautiful again. But this is all a lie.
The Reestablishment has no plans to move them.
Civilians are caged on these regulated grounds; these containers have become their prisons. Everything has been numbered. The people, their homes, their level of importance to The Reestablishment.
Here, they’ve become a part of a huge experiment. A world wherein they work to support the needs of a regime that makes them promises it will never fulfill.
This is my life.
This sorry world.
Most days I feel just as caged as these civilians; and that’s likely why I always come here. It’s like running from one prison to another; an existence wherein there is no relief, no refuge. Where even my own mind is a traitor.
I should be stronger than this.
I’ve been training for just over a decade. Every day I’ve worked to hone my physical and mental strengths. I’m five feet, nine inches and 170 pounds of muscle. I’ve been built to survive, to maximize endurance and stamina, and I’m most comfortable when I’m holding a gun in my hand. I can fieldstrip, clean, reload, disassemble, and reassemble more than 150 different types of firearms. I can shoot a target through the center from almost any distance. I can break a person’s windpipe with only the edge of my hand. I can temporarily paralyze a man with nothing but my knuckles.
On the battlefield, I’m able to disconnect myself from the motions I’ve been taught to memorize. I’ve developed a reputation as a cold, unfeeling monster who fears nothing and cares for less.
But this is all very deceiving.
Because the truth is, I am nothing but a coward.
The sun is setting.
Soon I’ll have no choice but to return to base, where I’ll have to sit still and listen to my father speak instead of shooting a bullet through his open mouth.
So I stall for time.
I watch from afar as the children run around while their parents herd them home. I wonder about how one day they’ll get old enough to realize that the Reestablishment Registration cards they carry are actually tracking their every movement. That the money their parents make from working in whichever factories they were sorted into is closely monitored. These children will grow up and finally understand that everything they do is recorded, every conversation dissected for whispers of rebellion. They don’t know that profiles are created for every citizen, and that every profile is thick with documentation on their friendships, relationships, and work habits; even the ways in which they choose to spend their free time.
We know everything about everyone.
So much, in fact, that I seldom remember we’re dealing with real, live people until I see them on the compounds. I’ve memorized the names of nearly every person in Sector 45. I like to know who lives within my jurisdiction, soldiers and civilians alike.
That’s how I knew, for example, that Private Seamus Fletcher, 45B-76423, was beating his wife and children every night.
I knew he was spending all his money on alcohol; I knew he’d been starving his family. I monitored the REST dollars he spent at our supply centers and carefully observed his family on the compounds. I knew his three children were all under the age of ten and hadn’t eaten in weeks; I knew that they’d repeatedly been to the compounds’ medic for broken bones and stitches. I knew he’d punched his nine-year-old daughter in the mouth and split her lip, fractured her jaw, and broken her two front teeth; and I knew his wife was pregnant. I also knew that he hit her so hard one night she lost the child the following morning.
I knew, because I was there.
I’d been stopping by each residence, visiting with the civilians, asking questions about their health and overall living situations. I’d wanted to know about their work conditions and whether any members of their family were ill and needed to be quarantined.
She was there that day. Fletcher’s wife. Her nose was broken so badly that both her eyes had swollen shut. Her frame was so thin and frail, her color so sallow that I thought she might snap in half just by sitting down. But when I asked about her injuries, she wouldn’t look me in the eye. She said she’d fallen down; that because of her fall, she’d lost the pregnancy and managed to break her nose in the process.
I nodded. Thanked her for her cooperation in answering my questions.
And then I called for an assembly.
I’m well aware that the majority of my soldiers steal from our storage compounds. I oversee our inventory closely, and I know that supplies go missing all the time. But I allow these infractions because they do not upset the system. A few extra loaves of bread or bars of soap keep my soldiers in better spirits; they work harder if they are healthy, and most are supporting spouses, children, and relatives. So it is a concession I allow.
But there are some things I do not forgive.
I don’t consider myself a moral man. I do not philosophize about life or bother with the laws and principles that govern most people. I do not pretend to know the difference between right and wrong. But I do live by a certain kind of code. And sometimes, I think, you have to learn how to shoot first.
Seamus Fletcher was murdering his family. And I shot him in the forehead because I thought it’d be kinder than ripping him to pieces by hand.
But my father picked up where Fletcher left off. My father had three children and their mother shot dead, all because of the drunken bastard they’d depended on to provide for them. He was their father, her husband, and the reason they all died a brutal, untimely death.
And some days I wonder why I insist on keeping myself alive.
Once I’m back on base, I head straight down.
I ignore the soldiers and their salutes as I pass by, paying little attention to the blend of curiosity and suspicion in their eyes. I didn’t even realize I was headed this way until I arrived at headquarters; but my body seems to know more about what I need right now than my mind does. My footfalls are heavy; the steady, clipping sound of my boots echoes along the stone path as I reach the lower levels.
I haven’t been here in nearly two weeks.
The room has been rebuilt since my last visit; the glass panel and the concrete wall have been replaced. And as far as I’m aware, she was the last person to use this room.
I brought her here myself.
I push through a set of swinging double doors into the locker room that sits adjacent to the simulation deck. My hand searches for a switch in the dark; the light beeps once before it flickers to life. A dull hum of electricity vibrates through these vast dimensions. Everything is quiet, abandoned.
Just as I like it.
I strip as quickly as this injured arm will allow me to. I still have two hours before I’m expected to meet my father for dinner, so I shouldn’t be feeling so anxious, but my nerves are not cooperating. Everything seems to be catching up with me at once. My failures. My cowardice. My stupidity.
Sometimes I’m just so tired of this life.
I’m standing barefoot on this concrete floor in nothing but an arm sling, hating the way this injury constantly slows me down. I grab the shorts stashed in my locker and pull them on as quickly as I can, leaning against the wall for support. When I’m finally upright, I slam the locker shut and make my way into the adjoining room.
I hit another switch, and the main operational deck whirs to life. The computers beep and flash as the program recalibrates; I run my fingers along the keyboard.
We use these rooms to generate simulations.
We manipulate the technology to create environments and experiences that exist entirely in the human mind. Not only are we able to create the framework, but we can also control minute details. Sounds, smells, false confidence, paranoia. The program was originally designed to help train soldiers for specific missions, as well as aid them in overcoming fears that would otherwise cripple them on the battlefield.
I use it for my own purposes.
I used to come here all the time before she arrived on base. This was my safe space; my only escape from the world. I only wish it didn’t come with a uniform. These shorts are starchy and uncomfortable, the polyester itchy and irritating. But the shorts are lined with a special chemical that reacts with my skin and feeds information to the sensors; it helps place me in the experience, and will enable to me to run for miles without ever running into actual, physical walls in my true environment. And in order for the process to be as effective as possible, I have to be wearing next to nothing. The cameras are hypersensitive to body heat, and work best when not in contact with synthetic materials.
I’m hoping this detail will be fixed in the next generation of the program.
The mainframe prompts me for information; I quickly enter an access code that grants me clearance to pull up a history of my past simulations. I look up and over my shoulder as the computer processes the data; I glance through the newly repaired two-way mirror that sees into the main chamber. I still can’t believe she broke down an entire wall of glass and concrete and managed to walk away uninjured.
The machine beeps twice; I spin back around. The programs in my history are loaded and ready to be executed.
Her file is at the top of the list.
I take a deep breath; try to shake off the memory. I don’t regret putting her through such a horrifying experience; I don’t know that she would’ve ever allowed herself to finally lose control—to finally inhabit her own body—if I hadn’t found an effective method of provoking her. Ultimately, I really believe it helped her, just as I intended it to. But I do wish she hadn’t pointed a gun at my face and jumped out a window shortly afterward.
I take another slow, steadying breath.
And select the simulation I came here for.
I’m standing in the main chamber.
This is a very simple simulation. I didn’t change my clothes or my hair or even the room’s carpeted floors. I didn’t do anything at all except create a duplicate of myself and hand him a gun.
He won’t stop staring at me.
He cocks his head. “Are you ready?” A pause. “Are you scared?”
My heart kicks into gear.
He lifts his arm. Smiles a little. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s almost over now.”
“Just a little longer and I’ll leave,” he says, pointing the gun directly at my forehead.
My palms are sweating. My pulse is racing.
“You’ll be all right,” he lies. “I promise.”
“You sure you’re not hungry?” my father asks, still chewing. “This is really quite good.”
I shift in my seat. Focus on the ironed creases in these pants I’m wearing.
“Hm?” he asks. I can actually hear him smiling.
I’m acutely aware of the soldiers lining the walls of this room. He always keeps them close, and always in constant competition with one another. Their first assignment was to determine which of the eleven of them was the weakest link. The one with the most convincing argument was then required to dispose of his target.