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art by Wi Waffles

For Your Protection

Steven Mathes spends enough time writing and publishing short stories that his sanity could be called into question. However, he does not hear voices, either inside or outside of his head.

This is his third publication for Daily Science Fiction.

Joseph has an appointment with a brain scanner. On the appointed day, he trims his hair, as well as the nails on his hands and his toes. He wears new underwear. Freshly pressed pants and shirt. Casual but decent shoes. He aims to look ordinary but needs to be clean. He aims to look highly functional, like he would never be bug crazy.
"Gee. Avoid looking dysfunctional!" his little voice says, laughing at him. "Never look like you hear voices."
"We've made it out of there every time so far," says the deep voice. "Just be confident, show some attitude, like you have nothing to hide."
The Healthy Living Center takes up an entire building just across Volunteer Park. Deviants and Partisans become healthy members of society there, but Joseph needs to hear his voices.
Hence, he must blend in on every level. He knows that exercise will settle his factory-creased clothing into a more relaxed and natural appearance, and that the surveillance machines have algorithms to check; the scanners scan much more than just his neurons. He needs to look just rumpled enough, just casual enough in a respectable way, and feels clever that he knows this.
"You're really thinking today!" the little voice laughs. "Wow, are you clever!"
"Pipe down," says the deep voice. "We're playing for big stakes here."
"Like survival," Joseph says.
"Don't move your lips," says the female voice. "There's cameras."
Joseph has heard that all people talk to themselves now and then. Perhaps they do, but only one voice lives inside a normal head, and if more than one is detected, the scan shows an abnormality. When an abnormality crops up, the scanner turns into a neural pulse generator, pops those bubbles of personality until something barely resembling Joseph remains. He cannot sit back and allow himself to be mutilated.
"Admit it," says the female. "You'd enjoy our company even if you didn't need us."
"But we're useful, not like the voices of the true schizophrenic," the deep one says. "We tell you profound secrets. We have an ability."
"Just give us a trip to Vegas, and we'll prove it," says the little one. "We'll bring you big winnings. Plus girls, girls, girls!"
"That's disgusting," says the female voice.
The little voice snickers, while Joseph fears his doom more than ever. With voices as crazy as these, he stands no chance of getting out of the Healthy Living Center in one piece.
"One piece?" hoots the little voice. "Schizophrenia, from the German skhizein, to split. The last thing you want is to get out in one piece. That's the point, right? To keep yourself split?"
Why would the little voice think this is hilarious? Why would the little voice associate this with schizophrenia, instead of a necessary adaptation for survival? Joseph crosses the street, intending to walk through the park.
"No, no!" shouts the female voice. "Don't cut through the park! Call a car."
"What?" Joseph says aloud.
But he does it. He pulls out his handy. He swipes the icon for a cab, and waits. When the female voice speaks, he always listens. That voice has saved him more than once.
"How come you don't name us?" says the little one. "I'd love to have my own being."
"How come you think of us as mere voices, instead of several people sharing a single body?" says the deep one.
"Schizophrenia is a disease, but we're an asset," says the female. "We can't be a disease if we're a benefit."
Joseph admits that he needs his abnormality, but clings to certain standards. Multiple voices, each expressing original insights, are far different from multiple people trying to take over his skull. Giving the voices names would approach insanity.
The car arrives, and he gets in. He barely joins the traffic before the horror starts. He hears the first screams through the closed window of the cab. Even normal people feel the terror now, during a harvest.
"See it fading?" the female voice says.
He tries not to, but he watches. At first the trees in the park shimmer a little, then lose color, and finally most of their summer sunlight. People try to escape it. Soon nothing more than twilight remains. Instead of a green, sunny park, he sees a gray, park-sized, cosmic chimney towering all the way into space. People lucky enough to have gotten out before the gray closed in dart away from the edge of it. A few run right into the traffic, causing all the cabs to screech, including his.
As always, one or two people move too quickly, even for the computerized cabs. Medical bots come to gather up these broken and bleeding ones. Given the quality of care at the Healthy Living Centers, they have a strong chance of complete recovery, at least from their broken bones. Pity the ones who fail the brain scans, however.
Pity them, but not as much as those stuck inside the park. Those inside disappear forever, harvested for something, something nobody understands.
By now the medical bots have marked the space they need to do their work, so the cabs detour around and resume their progress. Joseph arrives a mere ten minutes late for his appointment. He collects his thoughts, and puts on his attitude. A just-bad-enough attitude is the best disguise, or so he hears. It adjusts the mind into a pattern that disguises the voices.
Now inside his attitude, he feels his voices retreat into his subconscious. Even the little voice takes this seriously. He walks up to the receptionist, and the scanner lowers over his head.
"What is the reason for your delay?" asks the receptionist.
Healthy Living Centers always employ human receptionists. This one speaks in a flat tone, and one side of her mouth sags in paralysis. Joseph knows that they gave her this job because she failed the scan. They popped the bubbles of her personality. Her position provides her with job therapy, and her half-paralyzed face often causes the person under the scanner to panic and blow his cover.
"Your delay?" the receptionist repeats more loudly.
"Traffic," Joseph says. "There were accidents because of the harvesting. Or maybe you didn't notice."
The receptionist's good eyebrow goes up, and she clears her throat nervously. Joseph waits while stretchers carrying the accident victims enter the clinic behind him, knowing that coming out and calling what just happened a "harvesting" borders on illegal. Maybe he overdid it, but in his bad attitude he feels no regret. Already, the scanner hums overhead. In a moment it beeps. Done just like that. The receptionist squints at the display. Joseph struggles to keep his anger at the top of his thoughts.
The receptionist shrugs, and looks up:
"You're still pre-schizophrenic, but your numbers are much better. We'll still want you back again next week."
"Whatever," Joseph says with a practiced sneer.
"Your attitude is inappropriate. The wounded will be treated. We're here for your protection."
Joseph refuses to dignify this with a reply. He pivots, and struts away. A flaw in his angry manner might get him scanned all over again, right here and now.
But he makes it to the exit. Safe for another week. He passed!
Outside, sunshine glows over the green of the park. The paved promenades and cobbled paths remain empty of humanity, punctuated by nothing more than a couple of bots chasing odd bits of blowing paper. He feels someone come up to him at the same time that his voices come out of hiding. A person follows a step behind his left shoulder.
"This one's safe," whispers his female voice. "You can look at her. She's one of us."
He looks. The woman comes up next to him, and takes his hand. She squeezes it in a secret pattern. He replies with the secret answer squeeze, his middle finger pressing into her palm.
"A little voice tells me we could talk," the woman says. "I know somewhere private."
"Somewhere we can relax?" says Joseph.
They turn and walk. Joseph's voices keep silent watch, but he can feel them as certainly as he feels the alien ship overhead, still busy processing its harvest. He knows some who have the voices who can pass the scan as normal. He strives toward that goal himself. His improving numbers hint toward maybe next week.
"Just up here," the woman says.
She shifts a little, and moves into him so that they walk arm-in-arm. A feeling of trust bathes him like warm sunlight, here in this little pocket of freedom between them.
The Partisans can never meet in more than pairs, but Joseph and this woman will go to a room and make love. The intimate contact will allow their voices to exchange news, instructions, and marching orders. He can taste her presence in his mind even as they walk. Six voices live in her.
"I missed you," she says loudly, as they walk under a surveillance pod.
He has never seen her before in his life.
"Do you think you're insane?" the female voice asks him.
He thinks so less and less, but nothing has been proven. Doubt lingers. He would risk everything to prove his sanity one way or the other. His voices have something to say about that.
"Even the Resistance? You'd risk everyone in the Resistance?" suggests the little voice. "How far would you go?"
"Risking everything would prove you're crazy, all right," the deep voice says. "Risking the one thing every human cares about?"
"A paradox," says the little voice. "You have to be crazy to prove you're not crazy."
"I'm no good to anyone if I'm crazy," Joseph accidentally says out loud.
The woman under his arm flinches. She stops all of a sudden, but she holds onto him. Speaking aloud compounded with mentioning insanity makes for a serious security violation. She looks into his face, his eyes.
"I have an appointment," she says. "Meet me later."
He expects her to break away from him, but she kisses him first, hard and long and open-mouthed.
"See you then," she says.
"Don't ask her where," says the female voice. "Whatever you do, for once keep your mouth shut."
He must close it first. He stands in front of a fast food window. The closest door should be locked, but he tries it intuitively. Somehow he knows he must go through it. It opens. He wonders how he knew.
"The kiss," the deep voice says. "Intimate contact is how we communicate. Remember?"
The door opened when it never should have, so he feels sane enough to follow the impulse to walk straight through the kitchen, go into a closed closet, then out the door on the other side, and down a stairway. He follows a corridor, turns left, and climbs another stairway. It leads to a single door, but this one is locked.
"See the wires up there?" says the deep voice. "Pinch them together."
When he pinches them, a small spark stings his fingers, but he also hears a click. He pushes, and the door opens. He steps out, and finds himself in the country. He still holds the door, which exits from the wall of an enormous steel building. He never entered a steel building, and wonders about that.
"If you let it close, you leave here forever," says the female voice. "If you wedge that rock in it, you might be able to go back."
Even a schizophrenic understands the value of having options. He slides a stone into the doorframe and carefully lets the door close onto it. He steps out for a better view, and discovers that he must walk a long way before he gains any perspective. He walks the equivalent of several blocks into the forest before he discovers that the building is a dome the size of a huge city. Snow covers its summit. Then he has to walk back the way he came to get a better look at the figures clinging to it.
They have human shapes, but no clothing. They splay against the metal as if glued there. At first he thinks they must be the harvested ones, but he sees no sign of alien activity.
"No," says the little voice. "Can't you feel it? There are no aliens. Can't you feel it?"
"It's not just a feeling," says the deep voice. "You've lived in there all your life. You're just putting two and two together!"
No, he feels it, but the small part of him that still reasons tells him that he cannot possibly see what he sees. He squints, and just barely makes out the doors that outline each distant figure. They splay there on platforms, absorbing something that, yes, even he can feel. The entire dome emanates the collective life force of the harvested inhabitants, and they drink it in. It makes them young, joyful and healthy. Even he feels a subtle power going into him, even from this distance. He watches from behind the undergrowth until he sees one of the figures, a man, stir himself, and ride his door back into the dome. A little time later, the man emerges from another door at ground level, still adjusting his bathrobe.
Joseph has never seen such human perfection.
The man in the white robe follows a path into the woods and disappears.
"Follow him!" says the female voice.
For once, the voice tells him to do something he would have done anyway. He thrashes through the undergrowth, hoping to catch up.
At least he finds the path. However, he goes down it cautiously, not really wanting to meet up with the man. The path winds through the trees for the equivalent of many blocks, until the dome hangs over the trees behind him like an overly-perfect, oversized half-moon. He comes around a corner, and the forest ends in an orchard. In the distance, he sees country houses the way they used to look before the aliens came.
"There are no aliens, moron," says the little voice.
He dares not go much farther. He ventures just far enough to take an apple from one of the trees. He looks at it, and sees that it lacks its barcode. All apples have barcodes growing in their skin. Everyone knows this. For the first time in his life, Joseph becomes certain that he is not sane. The impossibility of millions of people living out their lives in that dome, the impossibility of the collective mind control, proves his insanity.
He pockets the apple and hurries back along the path. In his panic he forgets caution, and so do his voices. He rounds a corner, and nearly collides with a robed woman.
"Hi, there!" she says.
She steps around him, and continues down the path, toward the orchard. Her blissful smile and her vacant stare fail to alter her perfection -- her combination of utter beauty and absolute health. He feels as though she never even really saw him, like not seeing a sticky candy wrapper.
"Hurry!" says the deep voice. "Be more careful!"
"It doesn't seem to matter," says the female voice.
"That's the spirit!" says the little voice. "Show some attitude, like you belong at this party!"
He makes it back to his door, which still has the stone wedging it open. He suspects that choosing to go back inside is the biggest choice of his life.
He slips back inside without incident, retraces his route back to the fast-food kitchen.
"There's a whole maze of corridors here that you need to map out," says the female voice. "That's one of the jobs of the Resistance."
Whatever that means.
"Whatever that means," the little voice agrees.
"You're going to get real jobs now," the deep voice says. "Training is over."
"Whatever that means," the little voice says again.
Joseph steps out onto the street. The woman he kissed waits right where he left her.
"What did you bring me?" she asks.
Without really thinking, he reaches into his pocket and hands her the apple. She spins it around, looking for the barcode.
"Impossible, isn't it?" she says.
"Yeah, crazy," adds his little voice.
She gives the apple a little sniff and tosses it into a trashcan. She takes Joseph by the arm.
"Shall we?" she says.
They walk half a block, and she turns him into another door. As they go into the sex hotel, she nuzzles his ear. Marching orders. He knows he's insane, and chooses it. He wants to learn her name, but until he scans normal, that would be completely crazy.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 19th, 2013

Author Comments

This story had a difficult birth, and then (like so many children) came out much different from what I intended. For a long time, I assumed my main character lacked the imagination to think of anything outside of his closed neighborhood. I decided to push him out. This is when the story came to life--and took control of its destiny in spite of my efforts to steer it on a different path.

- Steven Mathes
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