Stogh grew up oblivious to his dystopian existence, content in his misery until one event altered his perception and opened his eyes to his reality. Pulled from one existence to another, he learns to build a life for himself and his new family, only to have to decide how much he is willing to sacrifice to save them.
THE FORGOTTEN ONES
This is not your story to tell. I have been robbed of more things than I can ever remember owning until the mere concept of ownership became an abstract artifact. At the time I thought nothing more could be taken. Little did I know transitory objects were just the beginning. They took everything until all that remained was my identity and that they took that as well. I was already dead when they killed me. The memory of me was all that remained; it has a story to tell. It has my story to tell. Only when their memory of me was gone did I discover my own memory, my death became my life. You will know my story and I will not be forgotten for one day it may be yours as well.
“Name.” It was not a question or a statement but rather a command. “Stogh.” “Wait.” The mechanical voice demanded. Stogh waited until the small green light over the speaker went dark conversation concluded.
Entering the scanning tube with its smooth metal sides so close as to make moving one’s hands more than a few inches from one’s side impossible; easily inspired claustrophobia. Learning to control the pounding heartbeat, sweaty palms, and rapid shallow breathing was essential. Claustrophobia and guilt looked the same.
Stogh counted mentally. Metallic whir. One, two, three. Pause. Five, six, seven. Metallic whir. Eight, nine, ten. Stop. Click. “Proceed.” The speaker announced as the doorway ahead of him slid open. Even if he’d wanted to there was no going back. Stogh stepped forward as the door slid closed behind him. The room was long and darkened. No windows for security meant no windows for light, no windows to help mark the passage of time. Not that it mattered, you stared when you sat down and you ended when you were told to stand up. No way to mark time, no way to waste time, no way to do anything but work. Harsh fluorescent lights in metal cages provided some light, but it was the glare from the banks of monitors that provided most of the glow. Four rows of five banks each with each bank consisting of three monitors and one projected keyboard all dedicated to the creation of infopackets which were disseminated three times a day. Stogh worked on the break infopacket. Five segments of news with a quiz at the end to determine how much the citizen absorbed of the infopacket. Results were graded and each missed question led to a reduction in the next meal’s rations. The news mattered. What he did mattered.
“No supervisor, no.”
Cold metal with a thin mesh pad constituted the seat which was bolted to the floor at a predetermined optimum height and distance from the work station. Embedded in the mesh were sensors that provided feedback, interactive ergonomics to someone somewhere the details never concerned Stogh especially not as he mentally slipped into work mode. His three monitors waited with their glowing phrases. “We make the news.” The left on the right declared “We are the news.” The one on the right declared and on the center monitor in bold red letters it declared. “Everyone’s news.” Without another thought Stogh scanned his palm and his eye even though it had already been verified once to get into the building. The monitors came to life, the virtual keyboard below lit up and another shift began. ‘Voters expected to report for voter training. Refer to District Programs for designated times.’ The left monitor displayed. This was the raw unvarnished news fed directly to him. The center monitor had a blinking cursor awaiting his response. As it was that infonugget was too raw and too harsh which was where a specially trained reporter such as Stogh entered. He took infornuggests and developed them into carefully worded, palatable and entertaining infopackets. A small shock coming from his chair jumped Stogh into action his fingers flying over the virtual keyboard as the center monitor filled with the story.
‘Prepare for a busy voting season. Don’t be left behind. Information sessions coming to an area near you soon.’
Story finished Stogh pressed enter and waited. The result was swift as the monitor on the right displayed bullet points in red text. T.6.37 and L.24.83. Refine and resubmit.
It could be worse. Tone and length citations weren’t bad as long as you didn’t have too many. The counter at the bottom of the center monitor kept a tally of all citations. No one in the room knew how anyone else was doing. Either they were there or they weren’t. Good or gone. Stogh paused for a moment his fingers hovering over the glowing keyboard as he mentally reworked the infopacket. A corrected version fixed in his mind Stogh began to type. The words appeared on the center monitor now blank of the first draft.
‘It is the privilege of every citizen to attend their voting information session and participate fully.’
End. Finish and send. There was a brief pause before the right monitor flashed ‘Accepted’ in large green letters. One story finished the next one appeared on the left monitor and Stogh resumed his work. Facts. Write. Edit. Write. Finish. It was orderly, calm just the way things should be. The room was shrouded in silence only broken by the occasional muffled cough. No one even rose from their seats, even bladder habits had been trained to conform to the schedule. Stogh worked at a steady measured pace fact in infopacket out until at last the monitors in front of him faded to black and the caged lights overhead turned on flooding the room with a harsh light. Stogh’s chair shook with a harsh vibration serving as an additional reminder that it was time for the mid-shift break.
In unspoken lockstep unity all the reporters stood from their now darkened work stations and marched in formation through the doorway at the far end of the room. They remained within the secure confines of the National Reporter’s Compound so there was no need to go through the screening process again. Stogh shuffled forward like the rest of the reporters kept his head bowed and a careful rein on his thoughts. Just because you weren’t actively being scanned in no way meant that you weren’t being examined. Instead Stogh studied the scuffed shoes of the reporter in front of him. ‘He should be more mindful of his appearance. I should-‘the thought died in Stogh’s mind as they entered the break room.
Here the monotony of the grey walls was broken up by the placement of bold and graphic PR, positive reinforcement messages. They were painted on the walls and although chipped and painted, they were as much a part of this building as the people who worked in it. Stogh stayed in lock step as the line curved to the right. A hole in the wall was just wide enough to admit the metal tray holding his lunch. Questions or comments would only invite trouble so Stogh mutely took the tray offered to him and continued down the line. Dispensed next was a carton of milk with a scan of his imbedded identifier confirming the receipt of his meal. The lockstep march continued tray in hand behind the scuffed shoes to a table. Everything and everyone had their place; his was four seats down on the second table. Stogh carefully placed his tray down on the metal table making sure to create as little noise as possible before maneuvering to sit in seat number four the metal seat firmly affixed to the floor. It was only then Stogh could fully examine his meal.
The nutripasty on his tray was nearly indistinguishable from the dull tray it came on. All the nutrition one could need in one convenient pouch no need for flatware either, just pick up and chew. Mechanically Stogh took one carefully calibrated bite. Cold on the inside, hot on the outside with the grey mush filling providing substance sans flavor. Still Stogh took another mindless measured bite. Eat too fast you’d finish too soon, and have to sit waiting for everyone else to finish shamed that everyone judged you as greedy and gluttonous wanting more that your fair share and not enjoying what you had because others had less. Take too long and you wouldn’t have enough time to finish leaving part of your nutripasty unfinished on your plate. You’d be marked as one who wasted the gifts the state had given you. Outside were throngs of people who had to work much harder for their portion and here you were in the coveted position of reporter wasting the gifts that the state so generously bestowed on you. Waste too much and next mealtime your tray would have half a dozen crackers instead of a nutripasty. Continue to waste and you were replaced. The task was to eat just right in order to finish at just the right time. Stogh set his nutripasty down but continued to chew methodically as he picked up his milk box. The change in packaging caught his eye. ‘Ultra lean milk. Same taste, less fat.’ The label read. It seemed different from yesterday there was no way to be certain. Besides did it really matter this is what he was given today.
“Ultra lean. Yesterday it had 0.1% fat. Today it’s 0.05%, why even bother?” the reporter with the scuffed shoes whispered to him. Stogh was paralyzed with indecision. While conversation was not prohibited the topics of conversation were clearly outlined. No discussions pertaining to work past, present, or future. In addition personal discussions were also discouraged. Rather than accidently stray into prohibited topics it was easier to just remain silent. That and getting attached were the most dangerous things. People came. People went and ignorance was safety. Those rules had kept Stogh alive all this time there was no reason to break them now. No reason except for the occasional breakthrough of insanity that could cripple even the most iron will. “What makes you say that?” Stogh asked quietly. Maybe so quiet that the man didn’t hear him then this whole nonsense could be forgotten.
“Because yesterday I made a record of the box, didn’t mean to. The box got wet and I held on to it for too long. Look.” The stranger pressed his hand onto Stogh’s thigh. Contact? Did he not know the rules? Did he not care? They’d all been through the same education and conditioning untold hours spent in the chairs as information and civics had been fed into them. He had to remember their lessons and yet this man acted like none of it mattered. It mattered to Stogh even in it didn’t matter to him yet something compelled Stogh to look down, just a quick glance. Sure enough there were marks on the stranger’s palm. Satisfied Stogh had seen it the hand was quickly withdrawn. “See it’s proof.” He demanded.
“It’s proof of nothing. So the number changed.” Stogh hissed.
“It is. It’s proof that they’re lying to us.”
“Why? How? Just because they don’t tell you something doesn’t mean they’re lying.” And with that Stogh did his best to turn a cold shoulder to the stranger both physically and conversationally. His nutripasty was by now uniformly cold matching the fear he felt inside.
The subway was a dirty affair with its crowded platforms that reeked of human sweat and toil. Although the cars themselves were scrubbed clean every evening there was no evading the inherent smell that came from so many people being crammed into one small space. It was nauseating and a luxury Stogh allowed himself only when heading home and the weather outside was too unpleasant to bear the thought of walking. Today the rain fell in a steady drizzle soaking everything and everyone but failing to clean the pervasive stench from the city. This was the very definition of a subway night.
Slowly the doors slid open expelling drab people dressed in standard grey on grey clothes. This was their destination at least for now. They scurried away from the subway making way for an influx of passengers. Stogh stepped aboard and found a seat in the corner. The windows had been covered over by more painted bold posters this time the one above him proclaimed, “A no vote is no vote at all.” While the graphic showed a finger pressing the ballot button with a bold green checkmark next to the yes. Bored with the poster Stogh turned his examinations inward noting that his nails were too long and his shoes slightly scuffed things he’d have to remedy, things that could occupy his attention allowing him to ignore his fellow passengers until his stop was announced.
The world Stogh exited onto was different than the concrete skyscrapers of the Working District. Concrete buildings that disappeared into the clouds had been replaced with old cinderblock and peeling plaster apartment blocks that never rose no more than ten stories. The streets were clean and void of any traffic, only government and top officials had private transportation. Besides it was a fact Stogh had learned that such private transportation was in reality a burden, one of the many endured by officials in their continual service to the community. ‘All to help those who must carry all our burdens.’ Stogh thought pulling the collar of his rain coat tighter about him and opened his umbrella. His apartment lay two streets over from the station, a short distance yet one that found his pant cuffs thoroughly soaked by the time he mounted the short flight of stairs and pressed his palm to the lockpad. Hand scanned and identity verified the light turned green and the lock to the front door opened.
The lobby shared the same drabness as the world outside, but at least it provided protection from the rain. Stogh stepped in letting the door fall shut behind him with a heavy thud. Small rivers of rain formed in the creases of his clothes ushering rain to pool on the ancient cracked hexagonal tile floor. Here and there a tile was missing filled in with a replacement chip of not quite the right color and not quite the right shape that not quite worked, but what was one to do about such frivolities. A complaint about a tile was not worth one’s life. On the walls were painted more messages from the party. These were fresh having been retouched only a few days earlier. That’s how Stogh marked the passage of time by how many days until or since the messages had been painted. His brief survey of the lobby complete Stogh began his climb the seven floors to his apartment.
Housing assignments were based on a matrix of status and need in a very complex process that resulted in Stogh having to walk seven of the nine flights of stairs in the building to reach his room, but at least he had a place of his own. In the time before when he was still young and had no meaningful occupation he lived in the dormitories. Dozens of young men stacked in bunk beds with only a thin sheet on a chain that they could pull about their bed for some privacy. At this point you were living off of the Republic, you didn’t get anything more because you didn’t give anything. One could live like that for years Stogh supposed, but you weren’t supposed to. You were supposed to want to give back, to earn your own way. It was the goal of every man living in the dormitories to be selected, to show how you could give back. Stogh was selected to be a reporter and so a he was. It merited him his own room albeit seven flights up by now he’d grown used to the climb.
Stogh’s hand was on his door pad before he looked up and saw the message scrawling across his news band. “Voter training tonight 8pm in Comrade Hall” the message began to scrawl again until Stogh reached up and put his finger to the pad acknowledging his receipt of the message. The door to his darkened apartment opened and Stogh entered. A blind swipe on the wall brought the lights in the apartment up. Stogh was a simple man of simple means, as if there was any other way to be, he had his own room and that meant a lot. As he did every time he entered he mentally took stock of the room. Against one wall was a worn two-seater sofa. Although the faded lime green fabric was worn through at the edges it was still considered a find at that. One day the subway had unexpectedly stopped leaving Stogh to navigate the equivalent of several extra stops to reach his room. As he hung his umbrella in the crook of his arm he considered himself lucky, at least it wasn’t raining. Finding himself in an unfamiliar part of town either go through it or he could walk around it. In the sky the grey clouds hung low, rain was certain to come son so Stogh began to navigate his way through the unfamiliar streets all the while taking curious furtive glances at the neighborhood around him. It was much like his, the housing blocks didn’t seem to rise as high, but there was no mistaking the function construction. Think of function first and function always, the rest was frivolities. It made sense and in a sense that was all that mattered. So wrapped up in his meditations Stogh failed to notice the two-seater until he literally ran into it. “Ouch.” He yelped audibly as a sharp pain ran up his little toe through his foot. Stogh looked down at the offending furniture a small two-seater discarded for some unknown reason. There was no mistaking the fact that this was one ugly couch. The lime green roughly worn fabric could never be anything close to pretty or nice, and age which had brought holes to the edges and a few random spots in between had done nothing to improve its appearances. Yet here it was misplaced in the middle of the sidewalk, a hazard that really ought to be reported Stogh thought his throbbing toe made standing and thinking at the same time all the more difficult. ‘While I might as well sit down for a moment while I figure out what to do.’ He reasoned. The two-seater was surprisingly comfortable a fact that made deciding what to do all the more difficult. He should go to the nearest comm center, report the refuse and just continue about his day. He should but the longer he sat in this ugly two-seater in the middle of the sidewalk the more he found it growing on him even toying with the idea of bringing it back to his room. Was it stealing if it was left abandon? It was probably too heavy. Stogh got up and was easily able to lift one end removing that argument. The mere fact of adding something, changing something about his regulated living space sent a thrill up his spine. His debate was interrupted with the arrival of two street cleaners. It he wanted it then this was his, they even helped him move it to where it sat now in his room and commended him on being so efficient. Stogh hated that couch, it had gone from his to theirs an illicit discovery, his secret to just a piece of refuse bestowed upon him. He couldn’t wait for the colder weather to arrive, maybe this time they’re be enough blankets so he didn’t have to decide between covering himself up and covering up the ugly two-seater. For now though Stogh carefully hung up his jacket and umbrella. On the trucast there was an identical announcement about tonight’s meeting. Stogh glanced up at the clock barely enough time to wash his hands and put on his dress coat before he was out of the door again and back down the stairs. The nice thing about evening meetings was that the food they served was usually real and not nutripastys. That alone made them worthwhile.
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