I had this idea crawling around my brain for ages, and even wrote sections of it and then deleted them on three separate occasions. Finally, I decided to do the thing and be done with it, bad or good. I think it actually turned out pretty good. The concept definitely worries me, that’s for sure. This will again be the last story for a little while, because I’m well on my way into a new novel. Enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
In the year 2045, a baby is born, wailing and screaming and flailing pudgy arms. The mother lets out a sigh and wipes the sweat from her face before promptly closing her eyes and going to sleep, while the doctor takes the baby into the next room. After cleaning and wrapping the squirming infant in a blanket and ensuring its health, the doctor, a middle aged man with a neutral expression, takes what appears to be a gun from his coat. He turns the baby onto its stomach and presses the wide, narrow barrel of the weapon to the baby’s head, at the point just where the brain stem meets the spinal cord. He pulls the trigger, and the baby falls dead silent mid scream. It will not scream again for another thirty two years.
Colin and Mike clock on at nine and start work beside each other. You’d think assembly work should have been a thing of the past since 2030 but in the end, nothing beats manual labour when you can get it so cheap. Not that either of them are complaining. Not that they’re doing anything besides standing next to each other and screwing the same bolts onto the same screws as they roll past over and over again. Neither has a concrete thought in mind, only a vague anticipation of what comes later.
After twelve hours (and no breaks) of uniform movement, neither so much as glancing up for a moment in that time, neither uttering a word or thinking anything more meaningful than a fleeting can’t wait! – they clock off and head straight for Reilly’s bar across the road.
First though, they stop off at Sina’s Taste Emporium, where Mike gets himself four beer chips and Colin gets two plus a chicken burger chip for dinner later. At the bar, they slide the first of their chips into one of the ten horizontal slots in the back of their necks and order the beers. They slide into a booth in the far corner, away from the music. When you don’t have the chip for it, music is just blaring noise.
‘I don’t know how you do it, man,’ Colin says these words, his first of the day, to his best friend after the beers arrive.
‘Only taste. And only drinks, too. I mean, doesn’t it get old by the time you hit beer number four?’
His friend takes a long draught and closes his eyes while the chip does its work. A small smile touches the corner of his dry lips. ‘The taste maybe,’ he says. ‘But I like to appreciate being drunk, too. Nothing worse than drinking beer after beer and feeling nothing until the hangover hits. Nah, if it’s taste you want, there’s only three ways to go: good wine, good scotch, and the sip of the first beer.’
‘So why you go the other three beers?’
‘For the sip of the last, just before the chip runs out and you’re good and buzzed. You should try it sometime.’
Colin shrugs and takes a swig himself. He has to admit, it feels good. Damn good. The past twelve hours are already blurring in his memory, another piece of his life he’ll never have to think about again. ‘One day, brother, I’m gonna save up five of the best and try em all at once.’
Mike laughs. ‘You’ll have a heart attack. And so will your bank account.’
He shakes his head, but it’s true. Thanks to popular demand touch alone is more expensive than all other four senses combined, and that’s only for the most basic pleasures. Taste, music, sight and smell follow in roughly that order. ‘I guess we’re living pretty good as it is,’ Colin says.
‘Besides, it’d be a waste. You plug in all five senses at once you won’t be able to concentrate on any of them, they’ll get in the way of each other. Nah, always better to try em one at a time. And you still gotta buy the product, don’t you? I’m gonna get myself a girl before I go anywhere near touch, and what the hell are we gonna look at, or listen to, in this city? I get one of those chips I wouldn’t even know where to start. That stuff’s for rich people, man.’
Colin nods and takes another drink. The chip makes sure he misses none of the rich hops or the smoothness or the way it slides down his throat. He sighs. A fight breaks out near the juke box and they turn in their seats to see a bony looking man with the build of a child on top of someone twice his size, pounding his face. A few others stare at them until security drags the maniac out and a medic goes over the other guy to make sure he’s not too badly hurt. He isn’t. He gets up with blood dripping from his nose and mouth and keeps drinking his beer, shaking his head.
‘Don’t see that every day,’ Colin says.
‘Yeah, guy must’ve taken some Rage.’
‘Weird. You’d think you go for Adrenaline at least, or Love, or hell, just raw endorphins.’
He turns back to see Mike staring at him like he’s mad. ‘Love?’ he says. ‘Man what planet you living on? You think that guy’s got the cash for that?’
Colin shrugs and orders them another two each with a hand signal. ‘True. Me, I’d rather save up for the good stuff than waste it on Rage.’
Mike chuckles and finishes his beer. ‘Yeah, you think it’s a waste, but wait till you’re twenty years older and still working in the factory. You go nuts to feel anything, my friend. Trust me.’
‘Oh yeah? So what do you take?’
‘You know me, I’m just a regular alcoholic. I like my fine wines and they can keep their fancy senses for themselves. But I’ll tell you one thing, I am saving up.’
‘Are you?’ Colin watches his friend over the brim of the glass and can’t help but feel one of the rare emotions not yet exploited: curiosity. He used to wonder why they hadn’t commercialised it yet, and then he realised that if no one was curious about what the senses were like, they’d never buy them.
‘Yes sir. I’m gonna buy myself some dreams. Really good ones, you know, like where I’m on a tropical island with some woman drinking mai thais and living it up. Long dreams.’
‘Why don’t you save up for the island and the woman instead?’
‘Because, man. Then I gotta afford the chips too, otherwise what’s the point. How am I gonna afford a week’s worth of chips running on all six cylinders? And they better be on all six, I’m not going on a holiday like that unless I enjoy every goddam second.’
‘Yeah, I guess. Dreams, though. I dunno.’
‘We all got dreams, my friend. I heard, you get a really good quality one it’s almost as good as the real thing. The way the guy explained it to me, the difference between drinking scotch and drinking watered down scotch. Still sounds alright.’
‘Maybe. I just don’t like the idea it’s not really… real. I sometimes feel like I’d rather have a beer without the beer chip, instead of the chip without the beer.’
Mike’s expression doesn’t surprise him. A beer without the chip is just water with a hangover. The chip is everything. Half the guys at the factory never even bought the product to go with it, would just buy a bunch of chips and load em up, one after the other, until their whole pay check was gone and it was time to get up and go to work. You still missed out on a lot that way but it was a hell of a lot cheaper.
‘It’s just at least it’s real, then. The beer…’ He’d just finished his second – and last – beer, so he picks up Mike’s glass and takes a long sip. ‘That’s the real deal. The taste,’ he taps his head, ‘is all in here.’
Mike snatches it back, looking offended. ‘If you say so, buddy. Me personally?’ He closes his eyes and downs the whole thing in one and wipes his mouth. ‘I’d be happy if they just gave me one chip and made it reusable.’
‘Guess which one?’ Colin says, and they laugh, both of them feeling more than anything grateful for the laughter, that they can still do that at least, without paying.
Colin leaves first, looking forward to that chicken burger, and chucks his used up chips in the can outside for recycling. The second beer and chip are gone, but the buzz he feels will continue until it wears out naturally. Usually the walk home is his favourite part of the night for that reason, that warmth in his head, but tonight it’s drizzling and he’s hungry. Hell, maybe he’ll save the dinner chip for tomorrow and just gorge himself on the tasteless stuff and fill his belly.
He’s a step from passing the alley between Fragrance and the Thriller bar when a hand reaches from the dark and grabs his arm, pulling him into the dark. He brushes it off, mildly annoyed. It was this kind of thing that made him think the Protesters for Free Adrenaline had a point. If this guy stabbed him, he would die. Fight or Flight was a thing of the past, though admittedly it had done wonders for the population problem.
The guy himself is short and wiry with a wild red beard, and almost immediately Colin recognizes him as the guy they’d thrown out of the bar for fighting earlier. His eyes are wide and mad, and Colin wonders what kind of chip he’s got in the back of his head right now. Probably adrenaline, or more rage.
‘Hey pal, wanna see something cool?’ He grins crookedly. Colin stares back, unsure what to say. He might not be afraid but he’s still got some survivor instinct, so he tries to pull away.
The guy wrenches him forward and brings his face close, breathing hard. Colin finds himself extremely glad he can’t register smells. ‘I gotta make someone else like me, man. I don’t think you’ll like it at first, but I gotta do it.’
‘You’re insane,’ Colin says.
The guy laughs and his throat sounds raw, like he’s been shouting a lot. ‘Oh yeah, baby, I’m insane alright! I’m drunk and high and I don’t got a chip to my name, son. It’s all free, all the time, every day. And it ain’t all good, believe me, but it’s all good. Know what I mean?’
His grip is so tight the circulation is cut off to Colin’s arm, and the guy’s practically hanging off it. No escape likely, unless he can talk him down somehow, or just wait it out. The guy stares into his eyes again and chuckles, shaking his head. ‘Oh boy it’s just like I was, just like I was. Tell you what, man.’ He whips out a square metal object about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It glistens in the rain, featureless and smooth. Colin has no idea what it is.
‘I got a whole stash of these just down this alley,’ he says. ‘There’s a door that goes into the back of Thriller. I used to work there, see, and I lived down in the basement only no one knew. Used to experiment, trying to make new chips and senses, and then I made a whole crate of these bastards once I found out what they could do.’ The hand holding the square is shaking as he talks, flecks of rain flying into Colin’s face, or maybe it’s spit.
‘I gotta get out of town before someone catches on, and I’m takin one with me just in case, but the others? You can have em.’
‘I really don’t want them, sir. Please let me go, I’ve got to get home to my wife and kids.’ He doesn’t have a wife and kids, but once someone had told him that some chips made people sympathetic to that stuff. It could work.
The guy moves his hand from Colin’s arm to his neck and pulls him roughly again, so that his lips are right up against his ear. ‘Some of those chips they give you, man, they’re fake. They’re not the real deal.’
It takes a moment for Colin to register what the words mean, but before he can react the guy slams the piece of metal into the back of his head and everything goes white. He drops to all fours and an electric shock rocks his whole body, starting in the ports at the back of his head and shooting through him. For those agonizing moments he feels as though his skeleton is burning red hot, writhing inside him like a separate entity and trying to peel off the coat of burning flesh.
Finally it’s over and he’s face down on wet asphalt, breathing but otherwise paralysed. He hears scratching noises and realises it’s his own hand twitching on the pavement. The guy is gone.
Colin makes it back to his apartment, locks the door and drops onto the couch. He’s breathing hard, his sweat as cold as the rain, and there’s something else: his heart is beating. Am I having a heart attack? No, he doesn’t think so. Actually, now he thinks about it, it doesn’t feel that different from the one and only time he bought himself an adrenaline chip – more intense, maybe.
The metal object is lying on the carpet and he stares at it. What the hell did you do to me? Oh shit, what if I’m dying? He considers calling the ambulance and then doesn’t. He lies where he is for a long time, calming down, breathing slower. It’s alright.
He gets up, a little unsteady on his feet, and feels the back of his head tenderly. There are mild burns on the skin surrounding the six ports but nothing serious. He wonders if the guy disabled his ports. Another stab of fear shoots through him as he imagines living the rest of his life unable to enjoy anything, and then shakes his head and gets up.
He gets the chicken burger he saved out of the fridge and puts it on the counter, and ruffles through his coat for the chip he bought earlier. Nothing. He reaches into his pockets and finds only his house keys, phone and wallet. Shit. It’ll have to wait. For now, hunger is burning a hole in the bottom of his stomach and an unchipped burger is still better than no burger, so he grabs it and takes the biggest bite he can manage.
He almost spits it out in his surprise. Within seconds flavour is flooding his mouth: delicious lettuce and tomato and Christ, what is that? It surely can’t be chicken – the chicken he knew was never this crispy, never so… rich! He chews the stuff a good ten times after he’s already made it into mulch and then takes another bite. Incredibly, all the tastes are still there, and so strong! He got pickles this time, and somehow he tastes the individual pickles over the other things. Usually every bite tastes the same, an equal measure of all chicken burger ingredients, regardless of which part of it he’s eaten.
He gropes the back of his head again, certain he must have put the chip in without realising it earlier, but there’s nothing there. How is this possible? He finishes the burger in minutes and stands up, looking around for another test, anything. His eyes settle on the open sliding door that leads to the balcony.
Originally, Colin bought one of the rooms with a view thinking that an occasional sight chip and a rest on the balcony would help to relax him, but he’d never got around to it. Now, the view isn’t enough: all he sees are dark streets and an overcast night sky. The rain is still falling fast.
He goes right to the railing and looks ten stories straight down and sees a few parked cars. He puts one leg over and his heart starts going faster again. He puts the other over and stands right on the edge, leaning back with his hands on the railing and staring up at the sky. His whole body is going mad with it, the fear, excitement, utter exhileration. He can see the building stretching up another ten stories of empty balconies and then the sky above that, pouring rain into his face. He laughs genuinely for the first time he can remember and then imagines what it would be like to slip now and fall. He realises he’s scared, no – terrified.
He screams for the first time in thirty two years and feels it run through him as powerfully as the electric shock from the metal device. It is his first real emotion. ‘I don’t want to die! I want to live!’ He shouts.
A light goes on in one of the apartments above him but before anyone can come out he’s heaved himself back over the balcony and gone back inside. His heart beating madly, he goes straight for the fridge and opens it. There are some onions and bacon, and he throws them onto a pan. He grabs three eggs and throws them on, too, and then grabs the half eaten pizza and eats it all, cold. There’s a block of cheese, the same cheese he buys every time but never has the chips to taste it, and he shoves a chunk of it into his mouth and eats it.
‘Tastes like shit!’ he says, and laughs again. The bacon and eggs and onions are much better, and he licks the plate and is out the door before he’s finished chewing his last bite. The smell of the street hits him for the first time: of gutter and exhaust and rain on the asphalt. He breathes the acidic stench deep into his lungs and relishes it. It’s not good, not a good smell at all, but boy is it good to taste it like that – the pure, unadulterated real thing.
He walks through the doors of Reilly’s and stops for a minute to appreciate the smoky glow of the place. It makes him feel warm inside, somehow, a familiar place, and when he sees Mike still sitting there in one of the back booths with a beer in his hand he feels glad to see him. He’s never felt glad to see Mike before; Mike was always just there. He just was.
As he approaches, Mike looks up, surprised. ‘Hey, wasn’t expecting to see you for at least…’ He looks up at the time displayed on the television over the bar, ‘eight hours.’
Instead of replying, Colin signals for two beers and slides into the booth. He breathes deep, trying to slow himself down. He’s not sure exactly what he’s going to do with his new ability, but getting noticed is not high on the list.
‘You alright, man? You look pale. You get some new beer chips?’ he adds as the barman drops the brews on the table and walks away. Colin immediately takes a long draught. Yep, the taste is still there. No, in fact it’s better. It’s far better than having a beer chip. What had the guy said? Half the stuff they give you ain’t even the real deal.
‘I got unplugged,’ Colin says, still looking at his beer like it’s made of solid gold.
‘I don’t know what else to call it. Erased, deactivated, realised.’ The last word catches him and he looks up and repeats it, a half smile on his lips. ‘Realised. I’m real now, Mike.’
Mike looks like he’s about to call the crazy house so Colin talks quickly, telling him everything that happened and, most of all, how it feels, how it tastes to be real. When he’s finished, Mike’s expression has returned to neutral. Of course, he can’t feel fear or excitement unless he buys it.
‘Colin, get your face in order, you’re drawing stares.’ He’s right. People don’t usually have expressions unless they’re on something, and if anyone caught a glimpse of the manic smile on his face and saw that he had no chips in the back of his head… He sees one of Mike’s used up beer chips lying discarded on the table and he picks it up and jams it in one of his ports. ‘There, now if I slip up they’ll just think I’m on something.’ Still, he forces his features to relax. It’s a strange feeling. He’s not used to being aware of his facial features at all, let alone using them to have expressions.
‘Let me get this straight,’ Mike begins slowly. ‘A guy pulls you into a dark alley and erases all your limits with some machine, and then runs for it… why?’
‘Why what? Of course he runs. This shit ain’t exactly legal, Mike. It’s stealing from the government.’
He nods. ‘But why do it at all? Why not just keep it a secret and stay hidden?’
‘Because. He must be some kind of revolutionary. What he said was he needed to share what he was feeling with someone else. He said he was going crazy.’ Looking at Mike’s blank face now, Colin can understand. He imagines walking around day in, day out, trying to look normal, seeing everyone else’s blank dead faces all the time.
They fall silent for a long time. Dread settles in Colin’s stomach as it occurs to him that the government might have put something else in them all, like some kind of loyalty chip, that would make Mike want to turn him in. If it was possible, he was certain they did it. But when Mike finally speaks, all he says is: ‘What’s it like?’
Colin lets out a sigh. ‘Oh, man. The chips we been buying? Not even close to the real thing. I mean, from what I’ve experienced. God, there’s still so much to do. How the hell am I gonna get through work tomorrow?’
‘You gotta be careful. Real careful. Are you going to get that guy’s stash? Can’t you use the same device over and over?’
‘I don’t know. But if we could, we could distribute the others, get them out to people. It would be a revolution, a real revolution. The government couldn’t replug us all.’
Mike’s nodding, and Colin takes another swig of delicious beer – the glass is almost gone already – and glances around the bar. No one’s looking their way, so why does he feel so self conscious?
‘We can’t stay here, okay?’ Mike says. ‘Listen, tomorrow, we work like normal, then I’ll come over yours and you try to use the thing on me.’
‘Yeah. What can I say, I’m curious. Look at you, you can’t stop smiling, and it’s a real smile. Too real, it’s kinda freaking me out, man.’ Colin hadn’t realised his expression had changed and he makes it neutral again. Damn this was going to be hard.
‘Anyway,’ Mike goes on, ‘Whether it works or not, we wait till late at night and go to this alleyway, and check the place out.’
‘And? If we find the stash? If it all works?’
Mike smiles. ‘We deliver to the masses, baby, but not for free.’
‘What, like a black market? Make people pay?’
‘Yeah, why not? Not too much, and we’ll make it cheaper once we learn how to make them. The hard part will be distribution, do it some way we can’t be traced.’
Colin thinks about it, but not for long. He finishes his second beer in three long gulps and puts it down, his head spinning in more ways than one, and he’s never felt like this before, ever. ‘Okay,’ he says at last. ‘Let’s get out of this hole. I’ll see you tomorrow, alright.’
I’m living in hell, Colin thinks as he stands next to Mike eight hours later with a pounding hangover, staring at the endless conveyor belt. Mike doesn’t say a word, as per usual, just sifts through the screws, picking one up now and again, throwing it away or putting it back. His face is totally blank. Is this what I was like? He knows it was. He hadn’t realised how numb he was until now, and now he finds himself wishing he was numb again. I’ll go insane before my shift ends.
In the end, he can’t take it. He mutters ‘See you later’ to Mike and leaves without notifying the foreman. It could cost him his job, but if he cited sickness they’d send him straight to the infirmary where they’d find out nothing was wrong. What other reason for leaving was there? Besides, without the need to buy a chip for everything, the savings he had now could last him years.
The sky is grey and everything is still wet and humid from last night’s rain. He tries to walk like he normally does: slow but purposeful, looking straight ahead, disinterested. In fact his mind is going wild with everything – the smell of delicious sizzling beef wafting from a street stand (which also happens to sell taste chips), the way the suns rays are creeping around a dark cloud, a violinist playing something so beautiful it almost brings a tear to his eye; how long has it been since he could afford a decent music chip? And here it was, all free. All he wanted to do was stand there in the street and listen to it, but that was dangerous, so he kept walking, his face as featureless as stone.
There were just six hours left in his shift, so all he has to do is wait it out in his apartment until Mike shows up. He wonders what it’ll feel like to have a hot shower, or if anyone’s ever wasted such an expensive chip on such a basic thing. No factory worker has, anyway.
He doesn’t find out. His apartment is empty when he opens the door, empty when he closes it. When he locks it, though, two cops step out from the adjoining room and level pistols at his face. He backs against the door, hands up, and if they had any doubts as to what he was doing before they couldn’t now because the terror is written all over his face.
They keep coming at him fast, as if they’re just going to walk right on through him and out the door, but they stop when the barrel of the pistol is pressed right up against his face and the other guy is cuffing his hands in front of him. All this happens in silence, no one saying a word. The guy who cuffed him, a tall lanky blond, pulls him forward just like the guy in the alleyway, only he lets him keep going until he’s face first on the carpet.
‘Where’s the eraser?’ It’s the other guy talking, the one with the gun who was heavyset but in a tight suit. He’s sitting on his back now, pressing the barrel of the gun against his head. Colin’s breaths come in gasps and wheezes.
‘What’s an eraser?’
The butt of the pistol comes down on his ear – the ear, of all places! He doesn’t cry out but grinds his teeth against the pain. He realises that in that same weird way, he’s enjoying it. Like the guy in the alley said, it’s all good. He’s alive, alright. He chuckles, and then regrets it as the cop hits the exact same place again, hard.
‘Ha. It’s funny, you know, cos they always work people over in the movies, doing all these fancy things, but the best is to just get the same place over and over. Doesn’t matter where you go for, just as long as it’s the same. You can kill someone like that, just being relentless.’ He hits him again and now Colin decides he’s definitely not enjoying it anymore. Not even a little. The carpet is warm next to his head where the blood is pooling.
‘It should be right there, next to the coffee table in front of the couch I’m lying next to right now,’ he says.
The lanky guy goes around pauses, and picks up the metal object. ‘Got it,’ he says.
‘Chuck it here.’
‘Fuck you, I got it.’
‘What, just cos I’m the new guy you get all the credit? Eat it.’
The heavy guy pulls something out of his pocket, cursing under his breath, and Colin has a short lived fantasy in which he draws a handgun and blows the other guy to hell. Short lived, because what he draws is something small and metal and when he plugs it into the first of Colin’s ports the world turns to static, like the kind you get on televisions with no signal. Hissing, white noise.
When he wakes up he’s still on the carpet in his own dried blood, and he knows they’ve re plugged him because he feels fine. Not bad, not good, no hangover, just fine. There’s an official looking note beside him.
This note serves as your first and only warning in regards to the crime of erasing. Thanks to your co operation and information supplied, no further action will be necessary. If, however, you are found to be erased again in the future you will be summoned to court and possibly sentenced to the following:
- A depression chip lasting up to six months.
- A mild to moderate pain chip.
- Imprisonment and sensory deprivation of up to three days.
If you offend again in the next three months, these punishments may be incurred without trial. If you have any queries or complaints, contact your local Government Citizen Liason branch.
Signed, S. Manfried, NYPD.
Colin reads it twice, rubs his eyes and reads it again. ‘Thanks to my co operation and information supplied?’ He says out loud, and shakes his head.
He cleans the carpet and grabs a few hunks of old bread for calories. It tastes, as usual, like nothing. When he’s finished, he looks out the window and realises the sun has just risen – he must have slept for twelve hours. They’d be expecting him at work soon. He gets ready, showers, washes the blood from his head, and stares vacantly out of a window. He thinks of the guy from the alley, and wonders why Mike never showed up.
He leaves early, and this time he doesn’t have to pretend to be normal. His thoughts are vague and disconnected, but he’s thinking about that shower he never got to have. Still, he’s got some savings, and after today maybe he could buy a touch chip and try it for real? Yeah, that’d be nice.
He stops in the alleyway. It’s dark and empty, the small door with the rusty hinges is still there. He looks at it for a while, and then shakes his head and walks on.
No one says anything to him about leaving early the day before, which strikes him as strange, but he doesn’t think about it for too long. His mind soon becomes absorbed in the comforting routine of a familiar job. He picks up a screw, puts it down, picks up a screw, throws it away. Picks up a screw.
‘Hey.’ He’s been working three hours already and yet it’s only now he realises it isn’t Mike working beside him but one of the other full timers, a short wiry guy with bright eyes called Keiran. They’ve worked in the same area of the factory for two years, and this is the first time they’ve made eye contact, let alone spoken. Colin just looks at him.
Keiran begins a smile, but falters at Colin’s expression. ‘Hey,’ Colin says. For some reason Kieran only shakes his head and turns back to the conveyor belt, and a minute later so does Colin, although a while later something occurs to him and he looks up again. ‘Where’s Mike?’ He knows the two of them spoke sometimes, but doesn’t know how well they got on. Still, worth a try.
Kieran shakes his head again. ‘Don’t know,’ he says. ‘Just didn’t turn up for work, I guess.’
It’s a strange shift. Besides Kieran’s attempt at small talk, Colin swears he catches one or two of the other guys glance his way and just look at him. He wonders how he’d be feeling if he were still erased. If he’d be bored or scared or worried or depressed. In truth, none of those emotions seem desirable at all and he finds he’s glad he’s not feeling them. Plus, time moves quicker this way, and before long his twelve hour shift is over and he’s out the door, heading for Sina’s Taste Emporium. Touch could wait for another day – he needed a beer. Maybe Mike will be at the bar, taking work off sick.
Mike isn’t at the bar, and he doesn’t answer his phone. At work the next day, no one Colin cares to ask seems to know where he is or what happened, and those strange looks just keep coming. Colin keeps getting the feeling they’re supposed to be meaningful, those looks, but he can’t for the life of him decipher them. And he doesn’t really care.
But he is curious. Just a little bit. He walks past the alley way every day, and every time he does he pauses and looks down it, expecting to see a guy, Mike, maybe, standing there with a little metal device and a smile. He wonders if the cops are watching him.
It’s almost a week after Mike’s disappearance, and he steps into the alleyway. He makes the transition into darkness smoothly, his overalls blending totally with the darkness. He waits there, invisible, for almost an hour, staring at the brick wall opposite, thinking nothing in particular. No one follows him.
Eventually, he turns down the alley, pulls open the door, and steps inside. Smells come to him with the stale air that he can’t discern. He knows they’re dusty, old smells and can identify some of them: soil, rusted metal, stone. But he gets nothing from them, feels nothing as a result of them.
He goes down a short flight of stairs and enters a dingy, basement room where the crazy guy must have been living for a while. There’s a hole ridden mattress in one corner with a few thin blankets on it. A rotted wooden desk with a mug of something black which has round pools of fungus floating in it. Everything else has been cleared out, except… A piece of paper full of scrawled writing, and a paperweight. A square, metal paperweight.
Colin has never seen Mike’s handwriting before, but the note is signed Mike, and once he reads it he’s sure it was him.
I couldn’t afford to leave any of the others, but even if the bastards get this one I got a feeling it’ll still only be a matter of time for you. I had to get rid of a bunch to lighten my load, and guess where I started? Heh heh.
Anyway, let me explain: I walked in on you, bleeding on your floor with the metal thing, (Eraser), missing. I have to admit I felt kind of mildly disappointed that I wasn’t going to see what it was like, but then I remembered you telling me about the guy in the alley. And the fact that the cops beat you so bad made me even more curious. So I came down here, and guess what? Turns out these things do work more than once! That’s right, I’ve been busy.
I had to run pretty much straight away though, and I have a feeling I’m going to be running for a long time, man, a long time. I know we never really got to know each other, but you’re the only person I could ever really call my friend. You won’t have any idea what I’m talking about until you erase yourself and please, for the love of god, erase yourself. Friends seem to be few and far between in this world, but I’m going to change all that. As long as I’ve got my mind to myself, as long as I’m free, I’m going to change everything, and you can help.
There’s a revolution starting, C, and it’s going to be big. Step one is erase. Don’t worry about step two. It was good knowing you, man, I hope we meet again someday in another world.
Colin drops the letter back onto the desk and shakes his head. It seems bizarre, too strange to be true. A revolution? Maybe the ‘eraser’ as Mike called it, messed with his head, made him crazy like the guy from the alley. Maybe all the stuff Colin thought he experienced after he got erased was all an illusion, hallucinations?
What if it isn’t? A quiet voice in the back of his mind asks him. And what was life like before senses and feelings became things that had to be bought and sold? Someone like him, who’d lived almost his entire life this way, would surely be shocked by the change. What if all that was how human beings were really supposed to live?
Colin picks up the eraser and holds it up by his head. He feels nothing, of course, no elevated heartbeat or excitement or anticipation. It would be so easy for him to put the eraser back on the desk and walk out of this dingy basement place and go back to work. It would be like slipping into a comfortable old pair of shoes. No, better, it would be like curling up in his blankets on a cold morning and going back to sleep. But there is that curiosity.
He puts the eraser against the ports on the back of his head and the world turns white again.
He’s not sure how much later it is when he picks himself off the floor, wiping a trail of drool from the corner of his mouth. He has a hell of a headache and he wonders how bad the side effects might be from too many erasings and re pluggings. He decides if the cops re plug him again, he won’t erase, just in case.
But this feels good. He’s unsteady on his feet, and his hearts going mad, now. The full force of what he’s done – of what Mike has done – hits him and he lets out a dry laugh which quickly turns into a cough. It’s dusty in here, and now he takes a deep breath and really smells it, the mustiness that reminds him of the old beach house he used to visit as a kid.
The feelings and senses bombard him in waves, but he closes his eyes and stays in control. He lets it wash over him and breathes slow, and after a while it gets easier to filter some of it out and steady himself.
Now what? He wonders, and almost immediately the words from Mike’s letter jump out at him: Don’t worry about step two. Well, he’s trusted Mike this far, after all.
He slips the eraser into his pocket and tears up and scrunches the letter before doing the same. He’ll find somewhere to dump them later, but it would be too risky to leave them here. He slides the door shut behind him on the way out and hurries down the alleyway and into the bright sunlight. It feels so warm and pleasant on his skin, but he doesn’t smile. Instead, he turns the corner, stares straight ahead, and walks at a slow and steady pace to work.
He’s almost an hour late, but he doesn’t see any of the foremen and no one pulls him aside to give him a warning or fire him or anything. He walks right in and takes his place by the conveyor belt, where Kieran is already hard at work, methodically sorting the screws.
Just like before, a feeling creeps up on Colin, a sense that something is wrong. The cautious, searching glances out of the corners of eyes, the silence of the place broken only by the sound of relentless machinery. He picks up a screw, analyses it, puts it back. He picks up a screw, throws it away. He looks up.
Kieran has stopped work. He’s looking at Colin with a strange expression on his face and the beginning of what may be either a smile or a leer. ‘Hey,’ he says.
Colin looks at him for a moment, his face still neutral, his heart and mind racing. And then he smiles. ‘Hey,’ he says. He extends his hand. ‘I’m Colin.’
‘Kieran,’ Kieran says, and breaks out in a genuine smile of his own, no leer in sight.
Colin drops his screw on the factory ground, and twenty faces turn to look at him. He meets their eyes, one by one, and they all grin back at him. Everyone excited, geared up, ready to go. He realises he was the last one, and by the time he turns back to Kieran the silence is total: the conveyor belt has stopped, and only a few distant clunks sound from deeper in the factory.
‘So what now?’ Colin says.