The Mechanism (engelsk flash fiction)

Denne historie er den første jeg har skrevet på engelsk. Den blev skrevet til SFFworlds månedlige flash fiction-konkurrence i marts 2012.

***

The Mechanism

By Martin Schjönning

“I am ancient.”

The realization struck me like a baton in the dark. I might be the oldest person who ever lived. I do not know why the Mechanism has decided to make me so. I can only speculate …

Humanity had reached the pinnacle. We were standing atop a peak of technological and societal splendour, scornfully looking down at old Olympus. Laughing at the Ararat, dwarfed by our architectural marvels. We had crushed Sinai and Heng into gravel and built mountains of self-repairing alloys in their place.

Every known disease had been cured. Genetics and replication had made hunger and poverty bad dreams of our collective memory. We were human gods. Free at last to do whatever we pleased. So we did. For a while.

I recall everything clearly, as if it happened only yesterday – and in many ways, it did. I remember how at first no one really listened to the “Concerned”. That is what they called themselves. Concerned. Steadily though, debate by debate, law by law, they integrated into the higher echelons.

At first the prohibitions almost made sense. The ban on non-teleportation transport reduced traffic-related deaths by 98.6%. The zero-tolerance stance on grape sugar and other hard drugs improved the rate at which children graduated college. But that was only the beginning.

I was an engineer at the time. Not a great philosopher or politician. Just a regular hands-on craftsman. I liked drawing by hand and personally programming the work-bots, which was – I admit – sort of anachronistic. I was never meant to become an agitator, but the circumstances forced me. That is what I keep repeating to myself anyway.

The Concerned made a rather clear case: Using one’s hands creates the risk of damaging one’s hands. Outlawing it would remove that risk. Their lobbyists poured a couple of trillions into research in telepathy, and the government drew up the legislation – or rather, their computers did. Everyone expected that it would pass without incident.

Certainly, no one expected that particular incident.

The TV-studio was illuminated by soft spots and decorated with old fashioned sofas and a coffee table. It was The Nostalgia Network after all. The humorous retro-décor was part of the overall patina – as was the presence of the “authentic” live audience.

The host was polite, and good at keeping her remarks in a calm, unsensational tone. My opponent, a local leader of the Concerned movement, was anything but. I have forgotten – or more likely repressed – most of the debate. He utilized every one of his neural upgrades; the finest rhetoric enhancers and argument generators available. I, on the other hand, was dependent on my own faculties. It took him about three minutes to corner me. If only I had been truly cornered!

“So would you rather we turn back time? Make everything unsafe again?”, he asked me. It was a rhetorical question – I see that now – but as I said: I had only my brain to depend upon.

“Yes,” I replied instantly, “perhaps we should look over some of those laws again.”

The Concerned person looked absolutely flabbergasted, but his argumentation routines were set on full auto. It was not geared to react on natural human stupidity.

“You would, wouldn’t you? You’d also abolish gravity control laws, so you could watch children suffocate in their sleep, I presume? Yes! You’d reintroduce prescription free sodium chloride, and laugh as innocent people died of strokes! You … You murderer!”

The Concerned person seemed just as surprised as me by this sudden outburst. Such harsh words had not been spoken in decades. Their effect on the audience was profound.

Within seconds the first enraged spectator had broken free of his hygiene bubble and started shouting insults at me. Others joined in. The plastic lids of the bubbles filled the air. One struck me on the forehead. A few drops of blood trickled into my eye. The audience was going mad, their faces hideously distorted by anger. Network Security-bots arrived, exhaling knock-out gas.

A new age began. The age of the Safety Mechanism.

I do not know how many generations we have lived shielded in the titanic Mechanism. Hundreds of lifetimes, maybe more. I alone remember the world before. I alone was continually reborn by the Mechanism. Everyone else has evolved.

The first generation was the sad, paranoid breed of my own time. Even as the Mechanism, the largest, most advanced contraption ever created, took over, they were scared mindless by each other. Gradually the Mechanism fine-tuned the amount of chemical inhibitors in the air and sedatives in the food. As aeons went by, humanity lost every sense of itself – except me.

As I awoke this morning I heard distant noises, which was odd. The Mechanism usually protects us from sound and other unwanted stimuli. I rose from my mattress and went into the recreational area. I had not been there for what seemed like centuries. I was stunned by what I saw.

The furniture – deemed to be unbreakable and thereby safe – was shattered. Chairs and tables were thrown about haphazardly and the door had been smashed to pieces.

Nervously I tried to commune with the Mechanism. I was met with intense silence. The only thing I was able to discern was a sort of self-satisfactory chuckle, too distant to be labelled as an actual sound.

I went through the doorway and was momentarily blinded by the brightness of the sun. For untold generations I had lived just a few meters from the outside world, like a rat in a wall, though I had never even considered the possibility of leaving the Mechanism.

I looked around at the remnants of our so-called eternal cities, overgrown by thick weeds and gigantic trees, looking almost as old as I felt.

In the far distance I saw humanity running free, like insane children, forever leaving behind the sterile, obsolete environment that had spawned them.

Again I tried to commune, but the Mechanism was no more.

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