Translated by Brian Stableford
Version française ici : Le sas
Heng visiocaptured the news. As he did every day, the presenter, Norman Hubert Smith put on his false bioluminescent smile.
“It’s a great event that we’re witnessing today!” announced the man famous for being constituted of nearly 98% synthetic matter. “Scientists will attempt a cerebral fusion for several days in order to cross the Zhen-Cansadami fossa.”
A shrill whistle resounded by Heng’s ear. The image projected on the cornea of his left eye disappeared while his right eye continued to follow the news report.
Someone was waiting in the lock. It was an old man: a veritable ancestor at least fifty years old, apparently devoid of any synthetic implantation.
How had an individual belonging to the worker caste been able to reach such an advanced age? He must be really attached to existence to want to live in that state!
The old man seemed disorientated. He didn’t know the procedure.
It wasn’t the first time Heng had encountered an individual of that type. In spite of repeated government campaigns, marginals who were not up to date still existed. In general, such people were homeless, “self-ingulgent,” as they were known in the popular classes.
Sickened, Heng showed the old man where to put his hand. A red light appeared on the control panel. The man wasn’t even registered in the central database of births.
“You’re not registered, sir,” the employee announced, in a weary tone.
The ancestor pulled up a sleeve stiff with dirt and showed Heng the inside of his wrist. Heng recognized an alphanumeric code and dictated it to the control system, which displayed: José Hernandez, S.D.F., classification Epsilon.
An Epsilon! The system had been created specifically to get rid of the Epsilons.
“You can come in, Mr. Hernandez.”
The old man stood staring at Heng for a few moments. His eyes, moist and reddened by fatigue, didn’t blink. The employee felt sick. He was glad when the ancestor turned away and went into the cabin.
The door closed again hermetically. The patient’s vital signs appeared on the monitor. The man didn’t seem to be in very good health, so Heng regulated the dosages to the lethal minimum.
The employee knew that the machine would proceed in stages, adjusting the injections to the patient’s biochemical parameters. While the old man’s cardiac rhythm accelerated, Heng concentrated again on the visiocaptured news broadcast.
The scientists were lying in cradles of a sort. Their heads were covered with a kind of integral helmet. A thick cable linked each of the cradles to a machine in the center of the room.
“The seekers are linked to the correspondence matrix by Encephalex,” commented N.H.S.’s voice.
“But what are Encephalex cables, my dear Hubert?” queried a sublimely unhuman voice.
That was Maddy, the AI who served as N.H.S.’s partner. Maddy was always in a good mood and programmed to formulate syllogisms, supply grist to the presenter’s mill and ask questions that carried the discussion forward.
“Encephelax cables are biotechnological creations designed to transmit information from the brain to the correspondence matrix. It’s an organic substance that functions in the manner of a spinal cord, except that it only serves to relay cerebral activity.”
Heng unhooked the news report in order to see how his patient was doing.
The electrocardiogram was flat, but the operation was taking longer than anticipated. The machine had apparently been obliged to triple the doses of pentothal and double the injection of pancuronium bromide. The old man’s fatigued heart had rapidly given in to the potassium; there, at least, the expense had been small.
As the man had no known family, Heng activated the incinerators. The old flesh would not attract any gourmet.
Heng hooked up the news report again. Norman Hubert Smith was in the process of making an apologetic case for suicide. A strip filed beneath him announcing the government’s decision to reduce the population by three per cent. Be a humanitarian, commit suicide! the slogan declared. You don’t have a job, can’t feed yourself any more and don’t have anywhere to sleep? The suicide booths are at your disposal.
The employee shook his head. It was true; there were too many parasites. The population was getting close to eighteen billion. Keeping them all couldn’t be allowed. People of that kind ought to think about others.
At least he was indispensable; he had to operate the suicide machine and contribute to the wellbeing of deserving people.
A few years before the government, in crisis, had legalized murder in order to cope with the lack of resources, but that had degenerated. While the well off enclosed themselves in immense fortresses, the middle and inferior classes starved in the streets. Once the population had been reduced the government had sent in the army and disarmed the civilians.
The population still being too large, the government had then created the locks, or suicide booths. Outside the fortresses, life-expectancy generally didn’t exceed thirty-five. Soldiers and lock personnel could hope to reach forty-five.
For those who had the means to live in the fortresses, things were very different. Genetics and medicine having made considerable progress, the well off were able to live for several centuries in bodies modified integrally by surgery. One condition was, however, imposed; whatever the sex of the chosen body, it had to be sterilized. That was indispensable, in order that their number would not vary.
“We’re now going over to our friends in Miami Playa,” N. H. S. announced.
The telereality transmission that was about to follow the news report was broadcast all over the world. Heng was not one of its less ardent fans. He had followed all twenty-five seasons since the beginning.
Suspense was at its peak, because numerous events were on the point of culmination.
Would Jairo succeed in getting Lisa to forgive him? In the last episode, the young man had vomited all over his companion. The young woman, in the process of being fondled on the couch in the loft had been traumatized. Heng had always thought that Jairo drank too much. The employee also hated the perfection of his bronzed body.
There was also the story of Jim and Qian. Ignoring the young Asian’s advances and timid ventures, Jim was only preoccupied with the happiness of little Elodie. The little she-monkey was the show’s mascot. She was one of the last representatives of her species, worth several million credits.
All that debauchery of wealth and feigned insouciance fascinated the public. Watching that kind of show, the public forgot the quotidian hell momentarily. It was all fake, but the public wanted nothing more than to be taken in: it was a matter of brutalizing the masses in order to keep them in line.
Even an individual like Heng sometimes had doubts, though. A few months before, during a broadcast, one of the protagonists had dropped dead. Advanced as medicine was, humans were still mortal. The petty employee had understood then that the man who looked about twenty was several hundred years old.
At 23:40 Heng finished work for the day. He had three good hours of sleep before him. His couchette was in his workplace. There were three pills and a little bottle on his pillow. The first pill was maroon and contained nutriments equivalent to a meal; the second was red and procured an exquisite sensation of wellbeing. For Heng it was the equivalent of a hundred masturbations. There was no point in that primitive act now there was the red pill. The third pill was black. Heng lay down before ingesting it, because the pill provoked a profound controlled coma for two hours forty-five minutes, with a population-wide variation of ten minutes.
Two hours forty-six minutes later, Heng emerged from his artificial slumber. For the employee, it was the start of a new day. All his limbs felt heavy, and his underdeveloped muscles were taut.
The black pill was constituted of two fractions. The first part released benzodiazepines and other components that triggered a deep and dreamless sleep. In the morning, it was the second part that went into action, being dissolved much later by the consumer’s gastric juices. The liberated substances were extremely powerful. Among them were modafinil and ampakine, which had the respective effects of producing a calm and prolonged wakefulness and augmenting the cognitive capacities in such a way as to compensate for the missing five and a quarter hours.
Heng had been taking black and maroon pills since the age of eleven; when puberty began, a pink pill had been added, replaced at seventeen by a red one.
Yawning as if to dislocate his jaw, Heng made his bed, and deposited on his pillow three pills and a little bottle, which he took out of a wall compartment. Every morning, those elements were conveyed to the compartment by a pneumatic system. The pills were obligatory, but he had a price. Every day, Heng was debited a sixtieth of his monthly salary. By the end of the month, Heng generally had just enough left to pay for his rent and his clothing.
In the morning, it wasn’t N.H.S. who presented the news but a woman with a radiant smile. While Heng installed himself at his desk, the woman made an important announcement. The population reduction tariff had been increased from three to five per cent during the night. That was a score so high that Heng had never seen its like while he had been in the job.
A screen blinked and the employee saw the crowd that was waiting at the entrance to the lock.
Heng had the first patient come in. He blinked. It was a young woman of Scandinavian appearance scarcely eighteen years old. She was holding a wailing baby in her arms.
“I’m sorry, madam, but we only suicide one patient at a time,” Heng put in.
The young woman started to cry, and held out the baby toward Heng.
“I prefer to die first. Take care of my son afterwards; I’m his only family and there’s no money to raise him.”
“Put him in the egg to your right, madam.”
The lock was primarily intended for old people, but from time to time, young people were driven by poverty to commit suicide. The baby’s case was fairly rare; for Heng, it was one of the more disagreeable aspects of the job. At any rate, the scientists had made provision for every eventuality; the blue egg was designed for suiciding nurslings and toddlers. Death was occasioned by electroshocks at the level of the heart, in order not to poison the baby’s tender flesh.
The mother was about to submit to a similar death; the flesh of young women was much prized in the citadel.
A part of Heng caused him to hesitate as he was about to trigger the double procedure. Something in him would have liked to hug the young woman and her child in his arms, protect them and take them far away from danger.
If an employee acted upon such an impulse, he was finished. Nothing could protect him from an atrocious death. Robot butchers were on patrol throughout the city.
Heng was not a reckless person. He had got the job because he was ready to do anything to save his skin; that was what enabled him to press the button.
All day long, he exterminated patients. He had never worked so hard.
In the evening, N.H.S. presented the news. The government wasn’t satisfied; the situation was catastrophic, and a general crisis was about to be produced if the population wasn’t reduced rapidly.
A moving strip informed Heng that the scientists who had fused their minds in order to surpass the intellectual frontier were no longer responding to stimuli. The signals were chaotic and the experiment that should have ended in a fundamental discovery seemed to have failed.
Heng collapsed on his bed. He could have fallen into a coma without the black pill, he was so exhausted by his day’s work. Nevertheless, he ingested all three, and fell into the controlled coma.
When he woke up, Heng had an unpleasant surprise. An orange indicator was blinding above the reception compartment of the pills. On opening the door, Heng found that it was empty. A cold chill departing from the base of the employee’s spine diffused throughout his body, making him shiver.
He pressed a discreet button and a virtual terminal appeared on the wall. A message appeared on the screen. Apparently, Heng no longer had enough credits to pay for his three daily pills. He had to choose.
After reflection, he decided to do without the red pill. It was the most expensive, and its utility was negligible by comparison with the other two. Furthermore, the money saved would allow him to hang on for one day more.
It was, however, incomprehensible, How could his account have run dry when it was only the middle of the month?
Heng had no activity other than his job. His life was reduced to work and sleep. And yet, today he no longer had enough money to supply his vital needs.
When he had got dressed, the employee envisioned the news.
“The economists of the Great State are extremely anxious,” announced the morning presenter. “The objective of a five per cent reduction was not attained yesterday. The situation having deteriorated, the tariff has been raised to fifteen per cent. Credit has been subject, in consequence, to a considerable deflation. We’re in a situation of worldwide crisis.”
Images filed across Heng’s retina. The 1923 crisis in Germany was displayed there, as well as films of the effects in the world crisis of 2014 in France and England.
“Of all the economic crises the world has known,” the presenter continued, “this is the most virulent.”
The violent blinking of the surveillance apparatus attracted Heng’s attention. The number of people awaited outside the lock was mind-boggling.
Some people were so desirous of ending it that they were fighting to the death. Dozens of cadavers littered the street.
Amid howling sirens, the robot butchers arrived in the area. The tentacular machines possessed dazzling searchlights that blinked in a haphazard fashion. Identifying the uncontrollable elements in the population, the metallic monsters set about butchering the unfortunates with the aid of their multiple circular saws.
Heng waited for the drones to leave again before opening the door. The mechanical atrocities put him in a blue funk.
When very small, Heng had been traumatized by the robot nurse in the crèche. The android had the aspect of a young woman with a flat chest, in order not to excite the babies’ latent sexual instincts. The creature with the smiling face had suffered a dysfunction while she was consoling a little boy in her arms. The software directing the arm had contained a bug, and the pressure of the robot’s grip had changed from a light few hundred grams to five hundred kilos. Heng, who was playing with building blocks to one side, had witnessed his comrade’s howling agony as his ribs, still soft, were dislocated with a soft squelch.
In the early days, the androids had been a solution to cope with the augmentation of the population. Every citizen of the developed countries had started depending on a robot that, by working for him, ensured the conservation of his standard of living. Then the situation had mutated hellishly. The developing countries had also begun fabricating robot workers. As human workers disappeared, the number of robot servants increased. The indefatigable machines set about drilling and digging up every corner of the world in order to supply their masters’ needs.
In the end, it was the egotism of the powerful that had saved the Earth from total destruction; the people in question decreed that they alone had the right to attain the standard of living that every human being was then demanding. The remaining resources were rationed. The robots were seized by the government and melted down. Henceforth, the last robot slaves served the well off in their fortresses.
Outside, the population now associated the term “robot” with the butchers, because those were the only ones with which they were familiar.
A message appeared on one of the terminals that Heng supervised. The government was authorizing the operators of the locks to take special measures in view of the afflux of civilians. The booth was, in theory, capable of accommodating four adults at the same time. In normal times the rules were strict; it was necessary not to suicide more than one person at a time. It was a sort of ethical principle, aimed at preserving human dignity.
The act of suicide had had a dramatic symbolism at one time. Every human being was conscious of his unique nature, the result of genetic roulette and their own experience. The government therefore offered that individual death in order to recognize the uniqueness of each human being in their final moments.
That ultimate barrier separating human beings from livestock had now fallen.
Heng’s head was aching when he sat down on his bed. The employee met the gaze of a worn-out man who appeared to be on the brink of death. The old mongrel seemed vaguely familiar. Heng’s mind, fogged by exhaustion, took several seconds to realize that he was looking at his own reflection in the mirror on the wall.
Since he was fifteen, Heng had lived alone. He was now thirty-two and the reflection on the opposite wall was the only person he ever saw outside of his work.
The sudden awareness of his solitude made him reach mechanically for the red pill—but there were only the maroon and black ones in his palm.
Overwhelmed, the employee ingested both of them and sank rapidly into a coma.
The lack due to the absence of the red pill made itself manifest as soon as his working day began. The strength that prevented Heng from sinking into despair seemed to have been eroded in the course of the night.
The employee belonged, however, to an extremely resistant species. The paltry creature’s will to survive was the same one that had driven the ancestors of humankind to cannibalism three thousand centuries previously. Paradoxically, it was that type of individual who had permitted the species to survive in an environment in which danger and death might surge firth at any moment.
Today, however, the threat no longer came from without. Human beings had built their own hell.
Heng saw faces filing before him that seemed familiar. The empathy of which he had always been scornful began to invade his mind….
Now he was going forward as if in a dream, His life had been reduced to nothing in a matter of days. Deprived of his pills and brutalized by the accumulated fatigue of many years fatigue, Heng became unsteady.
The lock was there before him. This time, however, he was no longer at the controls. He raised his head toward the operator’s window, hoping to meet the employee’s gaze.
In that location, however, he only saw the luminous slit of an automaton.
No one would be able to honor his memory. The privilege that he had assured the patients for years was refused to him.
The door of the lock slid silently and Heng went inside.
Two molded walls came to surround his body in the manner of a sarcophagus. Needles penetrated his arms, and one pierced him above the heart.
The first injection was supposed to make Heng fall into a coma. The robotic syringe was, however, almost empty. The injected dose scarcely made the employee drowsy, although it should have sent him to the land of dreams.
An orange indicator lit up on the control panel but the robot paid no heed to it. There was simply not enough pentothal any longer. A supreme irony: if Heng had been less important to society, he would have had the benefit of a correct dose of sedative by passing through the lock earlier.
The pancuronium bromide burned his veins as it frayed a path to his diaphragm. The cut-price product was full of impurities but it was nevertheless effective. Heng’s lungs were paralyzed. Slowly, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the patient’s blood increased.
Still conscious, Heng felt an intolerable pain radiate from his breast. The potassium chloride finally put an end to his suffering. While the obscurity of oblivion invaded his sight, Heng felt his heart slowing down, until it stopped completely.
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