Eremitophobia

EREMITOPHOBIA (October 31, 2004)

“You can’t impress people with your knowledge anymore,” said Stephen gruffly. “Used to be if you weren’t handsome, you could fill your head with trivia and use that to impress the ladies. Now you can’t even do that.”

“Yes, Grandpa.” Tom sighed, rolling his eyes. He didn’t even know why he’d agreed to walk with his grandfather to the Halloween party. The old man’s costume–a fake moustache and sunglasses–would not fool anyone. But then, did it really need to?

“I don’t even know why you’re having Halloween parties these days anyway.” Stephen continued. “We ran out of Hershey bars ten years ago.”

“Yes, Grandpa.”

“You remember, Tommy, I gave you your last Hershey bar when you were five, told you to make it last.”

Tom smiled genuinely. “I nibbled on that thing for about a week.” But then he shrugged as he turned the corner, his grandfather keeping up along the narrow corridors of Atlantis. “But they’re making Hershey bars again.”
Stephen snorted. “Nonsense!”

“They are,” Tom insisted. “On Irwin City.”

“Where are they getting the chocolate?” Stephen asked indignantly.

“Hydroponic farms on Nov’Amazonia,” Tom explained.

Stephen made a sound of disgust. “And the milk?”

“Soy,” Tom replied, bracing himself for his grandfather’s reaction.

“Blasphemy! You can’t call that a Hershey bar!” The old man scoffed and walked on ahead of his grandson. “You kids these days, you think you’ve lived but you’ve never even had a nice juicy steak.”

Tom made a face. He knew that back on the surface, before Atlantis had been built out of necessity, people ate cows and pigs and birds and all kinds of land animals Tom himself had only seen on video. He felt vaguely revolted when his grandfather mentioned it with such gusto. But he knew better than to argue the point. The man was old and senile.

And he wasn’t finished either. “Ice cream! I used to love ice cream. Even you must remember ice cream.”

“Somewhat.” The truth was, Tom barely remembered the stuff. And the new Hershey bars tasted fine to him. Stephen was just a throwback.

Finally they reached the site of the party. It was being held in one of the common areas of Atlantis Prime, the capital city of the undersea world. Its designers had hoped to recapture some of their native atmosphere in landscaping the circular chamber, adding areas with real dirt and living trees, plenty of ultraviolet lamps, and murals depicting the surface world intercutting the large windows which at this depth showed little more than total darkness. Towards the far end of the park, there was a swimming pool and various fast food kiosks.

Since it was nighttime, the lamps on the ceiling had been dimmed; since it was Halloween, they’d been dimmed even more than usual, and red and orange lights were wrapped around the trees like Christmas lights. Music that Tom knew his grandfather hated was blaring from the PA system. He decided Stephen would be fine on his own, and began to work his way into the loose crowd.

Most of them were around Tom’s age and younger, most of them ocean-born, like he was. Only the older ones like Stephen and the generation following him were born on the surface. But even the middle-aged folks, those of Tom’s parents’ generation, would be able to play the costume game.

For the effect, Tom was wearing a black cape borrowed from his friend Jake, and a red shirt from his cousin Louis. The pants were actually from the discard pile in the laundry level, which probably nobody would recognize. He’d pulled on a hockey mask that obscured his features, even his eyes, and put up the hood of his cape.

But that alone wouldn’t make him unrecognizable. The vital part of the costume game was inside his brain. The microchip installed there since he was a small boy allowed him to remotely access information with only thinking about it. It also had a specific signature that others could use to identify him. He purposely scrambled the signature. No matter how many times he played the game, it was always mildly unsettling. He was used to being able to mentally ‘nudge’ his friends and know where they were, as well as talk to them in what amounted to electronic telepathy. Only his link back to the Atlantis mainframe kept him from feeling truly isolated.

But that was part of the game. Bigger, real fears were too frightening for Halloween. Yet it was with caution that Tom stepped along the carpeted path and among the oases of vegetation in the park. He heard no voices above the music, and there were no voices in his head to fill the void. Someone brushed past his shoulder, startling him. His heart inexplicably beat faster. But when he tried to see who had touched him, of course he couldn’t recognize anyone.

Atlantis was small, just founded less than two decades ago. Tom had grown up in a world where everyone knew each other, at least by sight and name. And while the city had expanded in the meantime, become by rights a nation with cities of its own, Tom still knew most of the citizens of Atlantis Prime. Except on Halloween.
He stood near the wall and scanned the crowd as best as he could through his darkened eyeshades. He spotted his grandfather dancing near the pool with a drink in his hand. Tom scoffed. He had the thought that his grandfather probably saw nothing special in Halloween other than the costumes and candy. He was already dancing with a woman half his age and having a fabulous time.

He didn’t envy the old man, not even tonight.

“So what are you supposed to be?” said a husky voice beside him. It had come out of nowhere. It sounded familiar yet completely alien. It made the hairs at the back of Tom’s neck stand.

“Uhm, crazy hockey mask guy. Like from the movies.” He kept his voice low.

“Where’s your chainsaw?” the woman, if it was indeed a woman, asked.

Tom chuckled. He eyed the female, who was wearing a revealing harem-girl outfit, but her face was heavily veiled. He tried to find any distinguishing characteristics in her body, but it was hard to tell in the gloom. A quick mental nudge at her retrieved only static. Reminding himself to play along, he gestured towards the fast food kiosks and the bar near the pool. She nodded and followed him there.

She had approached him for a reason. She obviously hoped to guess his identity, which could mean she had identified something about him already. Perhaps the cape or the shirt. If it was the trousers, she was out of luck.

If it was the cape, she might think him a friend of Jake’s, which would be right. Tom stopped before the self-serve bar and took out his credstick. He stuffed it into the appropriate slot in the machine and gestured for the girl to punch in her order. He watched her carefully as she ordered an Atlantic Trench Puffer. It was not a lightweight drink, and not something many of Tom’s friends were prone to drinking. It had derived its name from the puffs of black smoke that rose from deep-ocean volcanic trenches, and was believed to be just as noxious.

Not to be outdone, however, Tom ordered the same, and retrieved his stick when the glasses were filled and presented to them by the robotic arms of the machine. The woman slipped the long straw under her veils and sipped, while he looked for a way to get his own straw past his mask.  Then she leaned closer to Tom and spoke in his ear. This time the voice was unaffected, and he knew it wasn’t someone he knew. Could it be someone from one of the other cities? But if so, why had she approached him in the first place?

“Do not fear the silence,” she said. “It’s the only way we can get to know ourselves.”

Before Tom could find a reply, she’d slipped her way back into the crowd. For a second he considered unscrambling his signal, calling out for his friends. But he knew they wouldn’t hear him, and if they did, they’d think him a pussy.

He finally got the straw through a slit in the mask and sucked a good mouthful of the alcoholic drink. He winced at the burning sensation in his throat with a sense of resigned defeatism. He’d ordered the drink to impress a girl who hadn’t bothered to stick around and watch him drink it.

It was just as well. He was already light-headed, and he wasn’t even finished with his Puffer. He drew a deep breath and moved towards the chairs near the pool, carefully putting one foot in front of the other. As he settled down on one of the chairs, he looked around for his grandfather.

He never saw his grandfather. The last thing Tom saw was his own pinstriped blue shirt, though he didn’t know who was wearing it. Jake had taken it in exchange for the cape, but neither expected the other to keep what they’d borrowed. It would have been too easy. Tom had counted on Jake thinking that when he kept the cape to himself rather than passing it on. So a stranger wore Tom’s shirt, and the instant before the flights flickered out was enough for him to decide it was a woman.

The party was plunged into darkness. At first even the people were quiet, waiting for the joke to reach its punchline. But the punchline never came. Tom sat frozen, trying to will his eyes to see in the solid darkness. For a moment, he could hear his own heart beating, and then chaos burst into his ears like the shockwaves of an explosion. Tom hadn’t found his voice, but people in the crowd were screaming, male and female alike. Tom shuddered, gripping the arms of the chair as he desperately sought information from the same place he always did. He had to quickly unscramble his communicator and throw a mental line into the mainframe computer. Everything he needed to know was there.

But when he tried accessing, there was nothing there. His own chip lay dormant in his brain. That’s when he felt like screaming. The vague fear that had haunted him at the beginning of the party had materialised into full-blown terror. He was alone, blind in more ways than one. He couldn’t think above the screams and sounds of people stumbling all over themselves and each other. Only one thought materialised in Tom’s mind.

Home.

He stood up cautiously, but almost instantly he was pushed back onto the chair by a passing body. He tried again, arms held out before him, waving side to side to carve himself a path. But in the confusion he tripped and fell into the pool.

He knew immediately that he was not alone in the pool. The water swished and splashed around him, gurgling and crying bodies brushing past him. But the bodies were more like a force of nature than people he would otherwise have known. They kicked him, crushed him, grabbed onto him and dragged him down below the surface. In the water he lost the mask he’d forgotten he was wearing, but the cape wrapped around him, stifling his movements. His shoes hit bottom. The water stung his uselessly open eyes. He pushed with his feet and tried desperately to reach the air, not being sure if he was really going up or just further down. The very rules of reality seemed to have gone berserk.

Finally he broke the surface, gasping for air. His chest felt like someone had kicked him square in the solar plexus as he swam blindly, knowing he would reach the edge of the pool eventually, but unable to tell if he was aiming for the farthest one. His hands hit flesh and fabric, but he didn’t stop until he felt the cold carbon surface of the dry floor.
Pulling himself up was no easy task. He was coughing, winded; his heavy clothes made heavier by the water soaking through the cloth. The first chance he got, he unfastened the cape and let it slide back into the pool.

He crawled along the floor, barely dodging moving bodies by the swoosh of air that preceded them. A hand grabbed his arm, and he struggled to free himself. “Let me go!”

“Tommy, don’t be a dumbass.” It was his grandfather.

“Grandpa! Oh thank God! Are you all right?”

“Of course I’m all right, boy,” Stephen said gruffly. “You think I’ve never seen a blackout before?”

“A what?” Tom clung to his grandfather’s arm, letting the old man lead him away from the pool. The darkness didn’t seem to be bothering Stephen as much as it was everyone else. Stephen almost did seem to know where he was going.

Finally they reached the outer wall, and Tom could put his hand on the smooth glass–which was really transparent carbon nanotubes made to look like glass–and get his bearings, more or less. He was still functionally blind, but he kept trying to strain vainly against the darkness. He could hear that the initial chaos was beginning to wind down, most of the desperate splashing and crying coming from the pool, which now sounded far away.

Then he heard his grandfather’s voice, though he could immediately tell it wasn’t directed at him. “I’m not leaving him,” Stephen whispered. Tom strained to listen, but couldn’t hear a reply. “Oh come on, that wasn’t part of the plan.”

Plan? Tom felt his chest stir and stomach turn at the ideas that put in his head. There was a plan, so whatever had happened to the lights… No, it couldn’t be his grandfather’s fault. Could it?

“He’s just a kid.”

I’m not such a kid, Tom thought bitterly. It was becoming clear that his grandfather was involved in this, though Tom couldn’t imagine how. An earlier fleeting thought returned to him now: he hadn’t envied his grandfather’s lack of neural chip. He’d assumed that those few throwbacks who hadn’t had them installed felt lonely and disconnected all the time, or worse, were completely insane. Now he had the strange thought that his grandfather could handle the darkness better because of his neurological isolation. This was his natural state of being.

But before Tom knew what had happened, his grandfather’s hand was no longer wrapped around his wrist. “Grandpa?” the boy called, but got no response. For a few moments, Tom kept his back pressed firmly against the wall, afraid to lose his orientation. He called his grandfather’s name, but his voice was lost amongst those of others trying to find their loved ones in the void.

It was driving him mad; the shouting and wailing and things going bump in the dark. His ears weren’t used to that kind of cacophony. Slowly he resumed the slow trek along the wall towards the nearest exit. Maybe there was light somewhere else on Atlantis Prime. The blackout–that’s what Stephen had called it, right?–couldn’t be universal.
He clung to that belief as tightly as he clung to the wall. Luckily, no one disturbed him or blocked his path, and he was able to make his way to the hallway he’d come in through. But his arrival did not make things easier or signal a change in his situation. The corridor was pitch black. “Grandpa?” he called again, though he didn’t believe he’d get a response. His grandfather was probably miles away by now.

Tom drew in a deep breath. He’d been panting ever since coming out of the pool, and the air had become colder. He’d been too preoccupied, too scared, to think about it before. It wasn’t supposed to be this cold, the air this thin. More than just the lights were broken.

Atlantis is broken, he thought, as he ran his hands along the wall trying to find one of the maintenance panels. If he remembered the area correctly, there should be one just ahead. There weren’t many scattered around the city, since most of the real maintenance was done from control rooms and maintenance ducts, but he knew there was an old one just ahead.

He could barely breathe now, and in the silent hallway he could hear the echoes of whimpers and choked sobs coming from the party area. He couldn’t spare his breath to say anything.

His fingers felt an unevenness on the wall. Tom paused, brushing his hand back and forth over the spot, trying to get it to open. He remembered almost a minute later that the door would not open as it usually did. He had to force it open. “Shit,” he mumbled, panting.

If only he had a tool of some sort. He tried to pry the panel door open with his fingers, but only managed to scratch his fingertips and hurt his hand. He banged at the carbon with his fist, but nothing happened, of course. Sobbing now, he turned his back on it and, sobbing breathlessly, slid down along the wall until he was sitting against it, knees bent up and head buried between them. He understood now that he was going to die, that they were all going to die. Jake, Louis, the mysterious harem girl, his grandfather… Atlantis was broken and they would all die.

At first the flash of light seemed like a figment of his oxygen-starved brain. It was gone as soon as it came, and by the time Tom lifted his head all was darkness.

But then it came on again and it wasn’t inside Atlantis. It was outside, in the ocean. Tom stood up and walked to the window, which he could only now see as a faint outline in the whitish glow from beyond. And the milky light was moving away.

Tom recognized it right away. It was one of the pods the scientists used to explore the terrain around the cities. And it was fading away towards the sky. Tom stared, bloody fingers against the window, watching the light grow fainter, wondering who was inside.

When the lights came back on, it seemed as if a light bulb had gone off in his head as well. ‘I’m not leaving him’, his grandfather had said. He was talking about me, Tom knew. And he knew who was in that submarine pod. His grandfather and whoever had planned this whole night with him. They’d gone to the surface, though what would they find but more water, and barely enough land to survive on?

Tom vaguely heard the relieved shouts and nervous laughter from the party. The wails of others who hadn’t come through safely on the other side of the blackout. In his brain, he heard the crackling of static, then felt the old sense of connection to the mainframe, with its easy access to everyone on Atlantis, its constant humming of activity.

Tom shivered and turned his communicator off.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: