Cleanse and Control

By A.G.

On an exceptionally cold day early in October, a young man stepped through the gates of the state-approved school and walked slowly. His every movement seemed laden with hesitation; his feet dragged along the gravel path, as if they desperately wanted to turn him around and run home.

This was not because he actively disliked school – in fact, he quite liked the school. The teachers were kind to him and he was not bothered by his classmates. Rather, the problem lay within himself.

“ID,” a voice grunted, and the young man stopped in front of the entrance, his cold, numb fingers digging through his pockets. Every child was registered into a state-approved school, where they would learn and get the best quality of education one could get in America in the year of 2115. He was no different.

After a moment of rummaging through his pockets, the young man produced a slightly scratched ID card. Pax Evans, the name read. His portrait bore more resemblance to a mug shot than a picture: blank face, brown eyes, brown hair. Average looks, average height, and average weight. All in all, Pax was utterly forgettable – someone who could easily hide in a crowd and never be identified. It seemed that way, too, for his name. Utterly and completely forgettable.

The guard huffed in irritation, returned the card, and gestured for Pax to enter. He obliged.

The mere thought of going to class made his stomach churn with nausea. Why? He didn’t know. Perhaps he was just a lazy, cowardly fool. Yes. A lazy, cowardly fool who simply didn’t want to put in any effort into anything.

“Hello, Pat – I mean, uh, Pac.”

Pax glanced to his left. A taller, red-headed boy smiled down at him, ever so warm and welcoming.

“It’s Pax. P-a-x. And hello to you as well, Aidan.”

“Uh. Pax. Yeah, sorry. Never remember your name – dunno why, either,” Aidan said, good-naturedly. “I mean, we’ve been friends for what, three years? But every time I see you I think ‘Hey, it’s-what’s-his-face!’ Yeah, sorry buddy.”

“Meh, its fine,” Pax shrugged. Once it had bothered him, but lately he couldn’t seem to care. He just wasn’t exceptional, and he had come to terms with it. “How are you?”

“I’m alright. You ready for the test today?”

“Not really,” Pax admitted with a wince. School wasn’t his strong suit. But then again, sports wasn’t either. Art wasn’t either – his drawings were atrocious. He wasn’t sure what he could do right, let alone well. “Are you?”

“Well, yeah,” Aidan replied, but there was something off in this tone that Pax couldn’t really place – something strange, something agitated, like he wasn’t sure whether or not he was ready. But Pax didn’t think anything much of it.

After all, Aidan, unlike Pax, was doing well in school. He had a future. Pax did not.

 

Pain. It was the first thing he felt upon waking up – a throbbing behind his temples, as if there was a little man inside of his head, beating his fists against his skull.

No matter. School was school, and school could not be missed for a mere headache. Sure, they said that you could take sick days, but then again, they always blamed them on you when you came back. You should have been here, they would say. It was your fault for being sick. You shouldn’t have missed class.

And so Pax simply popped in two extra strength painkillers, slipped two more into his backpack, and headed to school.

It was even colder than it had been the day before, and the cold did nothing to numb his headache. His breath puffed out in front of him, thick as smoke, and he thought of those carefree childhood days, when he would laugh while pressing two fingers on his lips in an imitation of a person smoking a cigarette.

“Hello, Pax.”

“It’s Pax, P-a – uh,” Pax stumbled. Wow. Someone had gotten his name right. “Hello, Aidan.”

Aidan didn’t reply. Pax stared at him, bewildered. Aidan seemed different. His face, once the epitome of liveliness and expression, was now blank and impassive. His eyes, too, were a pale, lifeless green, his lips pressed tight in a cold, unforgiving line.

Mind reeling in confusion, Pax searched his friend’s face for a sign of life. There was no sign of it – where had Aidan gone, and who was this imposter? A knot of dread formed deep within his gut.

Maybe this was a joke. It had to be a joke. Aidan, failing the test? Aidan, rehabilitated? Impossible. Aidan was also so full of energy, so optimistic and happy…

“Aidan? Aidan, stop,” said Pax, smiling uneasily. “You’re scaring me.”

He turned to look at him and Pax flinched. His gaze was cold and apathetic, the signature detached look of those who had been rehabilitated.

“What…what happened to you?” he asked weakly.

“I failed the test,” Aidan replied flatly. “Won’t happen again.”

Pax stared, his eyes wide and unbelieving. His friend had been a traitor to the system. How could it have happened? Those who were rehabilitated were always the ones who struggled, who were unhappy, like –

Like me.

Pax sat down numbly, his thoughts staggering with shock.

A notification appeared on his computer screen. Pax instantly recognized it as the paper he had handed in two days ago; he had struggled with it initially, but felt that he had answered the answer adequately. Surely, surely, this paper could boost his dying grades.

He clicked it, his fingers shaking with trepidation.

6/10. Too vague, the comment read. Not enough. Doesn’t answer the question. Needs clarity.

A lump formed in his throat and he struggled to breathe. 6/10? And he had thought that he had done a good job! But then again, he had struggled. He hadn’t felt strongly about the question – How do you feel about the system? He hadn’t been able to genuinely praise the system. There was something – something, like a voice in his head, telling him that everything was wrong. And feeling as if he could not betray that idiotic voice, he had settled for a vague, but safe, middle line.

And look where that had lead him to.

I’m an idiot, he berated himself. I’m an idiot. Shut up, me. Shut up. Nobody wants to hear your stupid ideas.

One thought lead to another, and soon he was slumped over the desk, head throbbing in pain, tears stinging the back of his eyes. He was so stupid. Why? Why did he have to think strange thoughts? Why couldn’t he silence these idiotic thoughts? And why, oh why, was he failing school? He would never go anywhere like this. Everybody else would be enjoying their high-ranking jobs while he rotted somewhere in the gutter, either homeless or working as a ground-sweeper alongside those who barely possessed any cognitive function.

He wanted to blame something – something, but not the school. Not the system, either. There was nothing wrong with those. He searched, desperately trying to pin the guilt on some scapegoat, but found none. He was in the wrong. He had failed, again.

A new worksheet appeared on the screen. He prodded at it half-heartedly.

What is the purpose of the civilians of the state?

To serve and protect.

To change and improve the current condition of the state. Something is wrong with this system. It should be changed.

The beginning of the state brought _____ and _____.

Prosperity and happiness.

Stagnation and oppression.

How will you contribute to the wellbeing of the state?

I will remain forever faithful to the cause and serve it to the best of my ability.

We should be allowed to express our thoughts and deviate from the path that has been set in stone. Our lives have been mapped out before us, clear as the grooves of ink that make up the numbers that represents us – our skill, our worthiness. And why – why is it, that when we see a stranger, we think, “What do they do? Where are they positioned in relation to me? Are they above, or below me?” We don’t think, “What are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations?” Why is this way? It is because our futures are determined by nothing but numbers. And what do these numbers represent? What are they for? Why must we submit to them?

No, he told himself.

Yes.

His hand moved on its own accord, and the wrong answers etched themselves onto the screen.  

Are you sure that this is ready to be submitted?

Yes, the voice in his head whispered.

No, he thought. Delete it. Fix it.

Submit it and be rehabilitated, or condemn himself to a never-ending cycle of inadequacy? If he pressed this button, then he would be taken away, and his emotions would be wiped clean. The justice system operated under the assumption that it was the emotions of anger and dissatisfaction that prompted people to rebel, and by removing the emotions, they also removed the urge to rebel. Logic was faultless.

But Pax didn’t want to rebel. He didn’t want to overthrow the system; in fact, he bore no ill will towards it. He just wanted to do well. He just wanted to stop being inadequate. He just wanted a future where things would work out.

Not good enough, the words echoed. Never good enough.  

Logic was faultless. Emotions messed him up. Maybe, with emotions, he would no longer be plagued by these strange thoughts. Perhaps, with no more emotions to distract him, he would be able to do well in school. He could be fixed.

I don’t want to feel anything anymore.

He just wanted to be good enough.

 

Pax was sitting at his desk when they came for him. He was not surprised; in fact, he was glad. This, here, was living, breathing proof that he mattered. That he was important enough that the state would send its men to rehabilitate him. That the state cared about him.

They arrived. He didn’t struggle. He allowed them to overwhelm him, allowed them to pin his arms behind his head, and allowed them to tranquilize him.

Somewhere in the dark, foggy expanse of his mind, he wondered if he should have put up a fight to make it more convincing. Too late, he thought. Too tired. Besides, he had never wanted to fight.

 

Clear. His mind was clear, beautifully devoid of all the messy emotions that had once controlled it. He had been looking at the world through a dirty glass, and now that glass had been thoroughly cleaned until its surface gleamed in the sunlight. It was no wonder that the state wished to rehabilitate so many of its citizens. Guilt? What was that? He could not remember. Fear? There was no fear within his hear. Those pathetic emotions could no longer bind him to their will. He was free, he was superior, and he would not be controlled.

Pax was free.

Well, mentally, at least.

Pax stood in front of the mirror. He did not consider himself to be vain; in fact, he could not recall the last time he stood like this. Appearance had never been a concerning matter.

He took a good, long, look at himself.

 

Brown hair, brown eyes. Nothing spectacular. He parted his lips in a grotesque smile, revealing crooked teeth. His skin was relatively unblemished apart from the pale smattering of freckles over his cheekbones.

 

He leaned closer. On his right ear, a camera; on his left, a recorder.

He recalled being told as a child that he could not remove them. He also remembered hearing somewhere that everybody had a tracker injected into their right arm, too. He had never given it much thought; he had always been an obedient child. Now, though, he was curious. What could happen if he attempted to remove them?

 

After all, maybe they shouldn’t always have to wear a camera and a recorder. Being recorded and video-taped seemed awfully creepy and unnatural. After all, people deserved some privacy.

His thoughts wandered again and he thought of his failing grades – were they really representative of who he was? Was he bound to a future predicted by a few runes etched onto a screen? Surely there was more to a person than how well he could conform to the set standards.

 

The system was corrupt – there was no doubting it. Could he imagine a world where people ran free, their movement untracked, their vision untapped, their voices unrecorded? A world where your scores at school did not determine your future?

 

His fingers prodded the video camera carefully. It was small and circular – about the size of the head of a nail. It seemed to be attached by a thin metal rod that pierced the lobule of his ear. He gave the rod a wiggle. No response. Absently, he wondered if the camera could be taken off by cutting the ear clean off the head, then dismissed it as too painful of an ordeal.

Well, for himself, anyways.

 

Alina stood outside, humming a jaunty tune while watering her bluebells. The weather outside had been cold lately, but the cold did not deter her from caring for her beloved flowers, even when they weren’t supposed to bloom in October.

 

The sound of a door opening and closing diverted her attention from her bluebells. She brushed back her golden curls and looked up, where she was greeted with the sight of her neighbor, Pax, walking out of his house, his hands buried deep inside his pockets.

 

Oh, Pax. Word had gotten out that the poor boy had been rehabilitated. Alina was happy to see her neighbor again, and hoped that the impure thoughts no longer plagued his mind.

 

‘Hello, Pax!’ she greeted enthusiastically. Pax looked at her blankly. Alina beamed at him, glad that he looked healthier than ever. The last time she had seen him, Pax had looked so very sad. Always shuffling around with his head down. She was glad that the sadness had been removed.

 

“How are you?”

 

Pax stared for a moment, then smiled shyly and dipped his head is a bashful manner. “I’m alright,” he answered. “How are you?”

 

“Oh, I’m good, thank you!” she responded. “How is school?”

 

If something dark crossed his face, she didn’t notice it. “It’s going well,” he said smoothly. His eyes, however, darted to and fro between herself and the sidewalk. Oh, good old Pax. Always so shy and endearing.

 

“Oh, I apologize, I must be in your way!” she exclaimed, waving her small, gloved hands in front of her in an apologetic manner. She stepped back and brushed her short, golden ringlets behind her ear. “Have a good day at school, Pax!”

 

“Thanks,” he responded. Then, with a quick little wave, he departed and went on his way.

 

Alina smiled to herself and turned back to her bluebells. Good old Pax. She was glad that he had been rehabilitated. What a wonderful world they lived in, where the state provided effective mental health services, free of charge!

 

There were many things that Alina had become accustomed to – the shouts ringing in the night as traitors were taken away to be rehabilitated, the crash of furniture as they struggled, the harsh voices of the policemen that protected the people.

Waking up to feel the cold kiss of metal on her throat was not one of them.

Her breath caught in her constricted throat and for a moment everything stopped. Somehow, her sleep-addled mind registered the sight presented to her: Pax sat on her chest, a small kitchen knife held to her throat. Mind reeling in panic, she started doing what any sane human being would do in her predicament – scream and thrash for life’s worth.

“Stop!” he snarled, and it was then that she realized just how dangerous he was. The silver moonlight outlined the profile of his face and she saw it – the feral glint in his eyes, the bestial curl of his upper lip – this was the face of a madman.

Her mouth opened and she wanted to scream, but no sound escaped from her lips. Her limbs were tangled in the sheets, encased in the icy grip of fear.

Pain lanced up the right side of her head and she cried out. The pain had awakened her from her petrified state; she began thrashing about in a futile attempt to escape. She struggled, but no avail.

I’m going to die, she thought, and the mere thought sent her into panic. No. She didn’t want to die. There were things to do, sights to see, music to hear. She wasn’t ready for death. Whoever shall water her beloved bluebells? Whoever shall feed the little stray kitten when the nights are cold and dark, when nobody was there to hear those pleading mewls? And what of her job? She was needed – her clients needed her. And she had just gotten that promotion, too…

“I’m trying to help you!” he snarled. His forehead glistened with sweat, the muscles in his neck moving as he swallowed thickly. She looked on, horrified, helpless, and writhing in pain as he began to pull at her right ear.

“I’m helping you. I’m freeing you. Look at this! Look at what we’ve become! Tethered to some madman on a throne, cuffed and collared by these devices! I’m freeing you. Look, this is the camera. I’m removing it. I’m freeing you! I’m freeing you. You’re free.”

You’re the madman, she thought, and that was the last coherent thought she managed before a tearing sensation in the back of her head erupted, and darkness swallowed her whole.

 

Silence. Finally.

Pax had thought that the woman would never stop screaming. His attempts at calming her down had clearly not produced its desired effect.

He could only be glad that he had not been idiotic enough to test it out on himself. He counted his lucky stars for having run into her the day before on his way to school. Her infuriating cheeriness had been grating on his nerves. What better guinea pig than her?

And now he stood in the empty bedroom, where the air was silent, save for the harsh sound of his own breathing.

So. The camera could not be removed. Well, it could – it just had a very negative effect on the person who was unfortunate enough to have been the carrier. And if the removal of the camera produced such a negative effect, then the removal of the tracker or recorder could very well produce a similar effect. What a crying shame.

Oh, well. Guess he would just have to put on a nice show, then.

If there was one thing he knew about the line of right and wrong, it was that they didn’t apply to him.

 

Perhaps once, Pax would have felt horribly, horribly guilty about missing a day of school. That day was clearly not today. It wasn’t tomorrow, either. Guilt was no longer something that could be felt.    

And so he strolled down the street, his impulses carrying him away. A brightly lit sign caught his attention and he diverted his path towards it, drawn like a fly to honey.

Smile! Today is a good day, the neon letters proclaimed. Tomorrow will be better.

He frowned. A small figure was leaning beside the sign, as if waiting for him to arrive. Intrigued, he approached it.

“Hello,” she said. “I am Faye.” She was small and lithe, her pale face framed by waves of silver that cascaded down to the small of her back. A small silver brooch on her left breast pocket marked her as a person of high rank. “I noticed your attempt at removing a woman’s body camera last night, at 1:23 a.m. I was sent to apprehend you,” and here Pax felt a chill – had he been caught? “But I must say…I am intrigued at your interesting ideas that you have professed through your latest assignment. Perhaps I could assist you?”

“Assist me,” he repeated, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “How?”

She smiled and flashed her ID. “I have access to several restricted areas.”

He glanced at her. “And why would you be so compelled to do so?”

“Your ideas are intriguing. ‘Why is it that when we look at someone, we think, “What do they do? Where are they positioned in relation to me?” Why indeed? And if we all follow the same ideas that have been presented to us, then won’t we continue rolling in the same corrupt cycle? And our paths – surely they should not be determined by our grades. We are more than mere numbers. We need change, radical change, and with my assistance, you shall be able to change this system.”

Pax could not be more pleased with himself. With the assistance of these pesky little body cameras, he had gained the service of a higher ranked official. He silently praised whatever deities resided among the skies.

“And how shall you assist me?”

Her cold blue eyes flashed with interest. “Walk with me,” she said.

Pax obliged, walking alongside her. She tilted her head and gestured at the soft lights glowing beneath the edges of the asphalt.

“These lights. Do you see them?”

“Yes. What of them?”

“Ever wonder what they were for?”

Pax paused. His mother had told him that they lit the streets at night and kept everyone safe, so that they didn’t get lost. He had never given it much thought; lights were lights, and he gave the subterranean lights no more thought than the ones that were lit above his head.

“They’re bombs. And yes, they are active charges. They were originally implemented as a last resort – in case a rebellion occurred, the city in which the rebellion occurred could be detonated, and the rebellion would be effectively crushed.” She paused. “Look around you. Can this place be saved?”

“No,” he replied, and the instant answer surprised him. No, it could not be saved. The system was too far gone. “We should start anew. Destroy the current system and implement a new one.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Yes. And I have access to the place that can detonate these charges.”

 

If Pax had been filled with the uncertainty that he once felt, he would have felt the urge to go on a midnight walk, during which he would notice that the charges were no longer glowing softly beneath the asphalt, primed for their performance. But alas, Pax no longer felt uncertainty – in fact, he rarely felt anything at all. And so he slept on, oblivious.

 

Faye was waiting for him by the sign when he arrived at precisely 22:30. She stood, tall and regal, at the foot of the stairs, her hands clasped together respectfully.

Today is the best day of your life, the sign proclaimed, it neon lights glowing.

For a moment he blinked at the sign, uncomprehending. Then he leaned back and laughed to himself. Today is the best day of your life¸ said the sign. He had read it as, today is the last day of your life. It seemed as if his reading skills had declined heavily. Ah, no matter.

“Hello,” she murmured as he approached. He tipped his head in a perfunctory nod, then gestured for her to begin.

She led him down a narrow alley and stopped in front of a tall tower. As she flashed her ID at the door, the large metal doors slid open to admit their entrance. They made their way up a narrow hallway, at the end of which they took a lift to the top of the tower. The journey was quick and silent; there was no urge to speak. The end was near.

Pax stood in the centre of the room, the button within reach. It glowed softly, emitting a weak red light – an attempt to warn others of its presence.

And what a glorious moment it was – a boy in a tower, the world at his fingertips. The power, rushing through his veins. All this corruption, this injustice, could disappear at his command.

He pressed the button.

Pain erupted in the back of his neck and he crumpled to the floor like a rag doll.

“The bomb,” he gasped. “It didn’t – didn’t go off…”

Faye knelt beside him and placed a comforting hand on his back. “Of course it didn’t,” she murmured soothingly. Her nimble fingers clasped around his, gently prying his fingers away from his neck.  

“Don’t you see it? The lights – they are off. The bombs are disabled.”

The guilt crashed over him, cruel and unforgiving, and he wished that the ground would open up beneath him and let him fall into an everlasting slumber. How could he have done this? Betray the state? Destroy the state? No, no, no. He didn’t want to kill anybody. He just wanted to be good enough, to finally be good at something… then relief, that he hadn’t actually hurt anybody…

“Shhh, don’t cry, it’s alright…”

“I…I can feel guilt? What did you do? My neck – it hurts – what did you do?”

“I fixed you, shhh, don’t cry…it’ll be over soon, I promise.”

“What…happened to me? What did they turn me into?”

“You were overtaken by madness. Don’t you see it now?”

The cold, cold realization slammed into him, and between the guilt and the fear, the bullet was unfelt.
‘Faye to High Command. The subject has been neutralized. There was no rebellion. I repeat: the subject has been neutralized. There was no rebellion.’