Challenge #01473-D012: Life is But a Dream
Imagine waking up from a coma, in a hospital where you were no longer called a patient, but the term 'consumer' was used. That the care you received was based on the cost of doing business, not your outcome as a patient. That the normal systems and avenues to access resources had all changed massively, and when you ask how long you were in a coma, you find out that the coma didn't exist. That your family was changed, that the people you once loved were almost human at times, but in certain flashes, they resembled blood-soaked monsters who feed on kindness and generosity. That a few good people in leadership positions try to fight the invasion, but the whole world is looking to you because you what? Woke up to a "new world order", that you were "immune to the infected antidote", that you were the last "human" on earth, etc. where does she/he go from that point in their journey? -- @kristy1
[AN: I fixed your prompt up for readability. I hope you don't mind. Also I get the feeling that this is a very specific nightmare for you]
Syd woke up from a dream of dancing and rather good music to a white ceiling. Beige walls. Sterile scent to the air. What? was her immediate thought. There were no flowers. No cards. No helium balloons. But there was also no pain, and a partition up against where the window should have been. She pressed the call button.
"Your call has been noted and logged, and your patient number placed in a service queue," said a calm, mechanical voice from somewhere behind her head. "You are currently number. Two. Seven. In the service queue. We know you had a choice in medical assistance, and we thank you for supporting Insuricare."
"...what?" Syd mumbled. Her mouth was dry. And there was no carafe of water on her beige bed table. Nor on the set of drawers by the bedside. There were five other beds, all neatly made, but nobody else in the room with her.
Gentle hold music on the cusp of a tune played between ear-aching static. Syd looked at her remote three times. There was no other control but the call button. And five times, the automated voice intoned, "Your call is important to us, and we thank you for your patience. You are currently number..." and some vaguely random, descending numbers, "... in the service queue."
Finally, during the sixth, "Your call is important," the voice cut off and an actual human being entered the room. Well. On first impressions, they seemed like a human being. Definitely too chipper for Syd's liking.
"Good afternoon, Consumer," the nurse chirped. He looked like he'd just walked out of a shaving advert. "Everything well and good?"
There was so very much wrong with all of this that Syd went with Occam's Razor.
"No. I just woke up," Syd explained. "I'm very thirsty and there's no water. How long have I been in a coma?"
The nurse took her pulse. Up close, he looked eerily plastic. His movements were... frightening without Syd being able to pinpoint why. "Coma? I don't know what that is."
What? "You went to medical school, right? Coma? People asleep without waking up? And then they do? Sound familiar?"
"That condition doesn't exist." The plastic nurse checked a chart that was also a digital tablet. "It says you collapsed this morning. Do you have any ill feeling?"
"Only about what's going on..." Cautious, Syd sat up. "Can I have some water, please?"
Tap tap tap, on the tablet. "Oh, no, Ms Forth. Your account ran out of money an hour ago. I'm afraid you have to do some work before you can afford any of that. Which leaves you a net debt of two hundred to make up before end of day."
"Wait. What? How?"
"We know you had a choice when selecting medical assistance," intoned the nurse.
"No. Where's my stuff?"
"And we thank you for choosing Insuricare. Have a nice day, and thank you for exiting in a prompt and orderly manner."
And without another word, the nurse left.
Syd had to rummage through a variety of storage areas before she found a bag stuffed haphazardly full of... not her things, but clothes that fit, a phone that answered to her fingerprint, and a briefcase that contained a boxed salad and -thank God!- a large bottle of water. And some keys.
She pieced her life together from those fragments and found a workplace that was a cross between a call centre and a gold farm for some multi-player shenanigans. She had to sit in a claustrophobic booth and play what looked like Facebook games until her account score was in the green again. And she worked late to ensure that she may well remain in the green.
Her car was a one-person bubble of a vehicle that had automated seating. There was no radio. There were no billboards on the pristine white buildings. No signs to interfere with the plants that seemed to grow everywhere. No advertising, not even in the glowing lights of the roads.
Her home, apparently, was another pristine skyrise with plants rising up the sides. Not overgrowing it, but planted. She followed the address in her phone to a beige and mostly featureless flat with pristine white furniture.
"Good Afternoon, Sydnie Forth, master of this humble domain. You have. Three. Five. Four. Point. Two. Available in your account. Would you like to pay your window license and pick some fresh produce?" This voice had the same mechanical resonance as the one in the hospital, but someone -her other self?- had set it to a slightly British man.
"How much would that be?" she asked.
"That would be. Two. Zero. Seven. Point. Eight. Do you wish to pay?"
"Uh. No." She checked her fridge and opted for leftovers. Whoever she had been in this world, at least her taste for food remained the same. She microwaved it and refilled her water bottle.
"Your account has been indebted. One. Seven. Four. Point. Three," intoned the machine.
She turned on the television. "Access to only the free channels, please."
"Error," said the slightly British voice. "I do not understand the new word. Free."
Syd learned a lot, that night. Everything had changed. Her friends and family that she knew had been... altered. The life she knew was... well, it never had been, apparently. Electricity had always come from the sun. Living had always been close-knit. Everything needed to live had always cost money. Even the water from the tap in the flat that she paid rent for.
She turned everything off with fifty units remaining, and went to sleep in her crisp white bed.
The automatic voice told her everything she needed to do. Including what she had to wear, that day, for maximum earnings. Syd learned why the office was so quiet. Talking at work was taxed. Talking during lunch-break was taxed. Stepping outside during work hours was taxed. The only thing they accepted was the quiet tapping of keys and the shuffling of computer mice.
Therefore it was quite a shock to see a chat window pop up on her desk.
::HushedVillany:: You remember, don't you?
Syd typed, New cubicle, who's this? and learned that her username was Employee4653.
::HushedVillany:: Oh thank God. I thought I'd die without ever seeing a meme ever again
::HushedVillany:: I saw you come in late. You had that look
Okay. This was getting beyond weird. The credit counter gave her money by the keypress, so it didn't really matter if she played, chatted, or typed in the entirety of War and Peace into a disposable document. She wrote, Who ARE you?
::HushedVillany:: I'm one of the ones who remember a very different dream. A world that was so very different from this one
::HushedVillany:: I wasn't sure it WAS a dream until I saw the look on your face.
::HushedVillany:: Work long, again. I will wait for you in the lobby. We need to talk away from the cameras.
Syd wrote, I have a TASER. No funny stuff.
That evening, after hours, Syd found a mousy-looking older woman with thin pink lipstick and ridiculously colourful earrings, clutching at her purse like it could defend her from the universe. Syd said, "Hushed Villany?"
"That's me," she said. "I remember... in the dream I liked a band called Quiet Riot. But one of those words was banned, so..." she finished in a shrug. "You can change your username, and They don't get you for it. Come on. I know a place."
They walked together to a park that had a bridge in it. And a blind spot from the cameras under the bridge. "I can't be certain," said the woman, "I remember it all like a dream. But it's a dream that doesn't fade. Once... we had choices. Now... we have... conformity. The options given to us are the ones that cost us more or less credit in our accounts, but they all boil down to what They want us to choose."
"So who are They?" asked Syd. She had not introduced herself to the woman. Knowing names, she felt, was dangerous.
"I don't know. A new world order. A collection of invaders. All I know is that the ones that are... uncanny... are operated by Them. And... there's an injection. An infected antidote to... something... I'm sorry. You forget bits of dreams."
Syd remembered the needle. And the plastic-looking doctor who smiled as it went in. And a feeling of fog. And she remembered... "The president?"
"Yes. There was a reform. A guarantee of safety for the world. An end to prejudice and hate. Work for everyone..."
"On the plus side, climate change is no longer a thing, and we're not polluting," said Syd. "So what happened to all the major cities? I can't... remember..."
"Neither can I," sighed Ms Villany. "I know it was a drastic change..."
"Room enough for everyone in Texas," blurted Syd.
"I used to work in a mahogany office," said Villany. "And I'd listen to Quiet Riot with the volume turned down so only I could hear... and... I might have been important."
Syd checked some facts on her phone. Wikipedia was still free. There were five major companies. There had always been five major companies. Each neatly employing one fifth of the world's populace. Housing them. Caring for them. Regulating things so that everyone had healthy food and drink. Nobody went hungry.
There was no sickness. No hatred. No lack.
But there was also no religion, no choice, and no other options.
There was no art. There were no artists. There was barely any entertainment and little to divide the common throng. There wasn't even any sport.
And no clue where the puppeteer was.
Syd changed her name to Hot Water Ungulate, after another half-remembered band, and kept her eye out for others with the immunity. As the months went by, she and Villany had something of a club. And she was still the one who remembered the most. They chatted during work hours, and kept their facts to themselves.
Writing things down in any form was dangerous. They all felt it.
Working out who was in charge lead to... vanishing. Whoever was getting close just... disappeared. Nobody else remembered them. Nobody else acknowledged or even looked at the empty cubicle. Syd mentally drew a shape around those gaps in their intelligence and kept her conclusions to herself.
Something had to be done. Something had to change. The entire world was chugging along between desperation and complacency, and nobody -apart from the people like her- either noticed or minded that much.
There were no weapons, Syd noticed. Not even things that could be easily turned into weapons. No heavy objects. No glass. So, one day off as part of mandatory rest, she went for a walk outside the city limits. On a hiking trail like any other hiking trail. She dodged off, allegedly to answer a call of nature, and knapped a sharp edge out of some obsidian she had found.
Then she would say Their name in front of a camera, and wait.
With the sharp stone in her hand.
For a simple opportunity.
It would either work, or she would... vanish. Either way, there would be some form of freedom from this idyllic repression.
Syd kept quiet about her plan. She simply performed it. So the others would have plausible deniability. She didn't resist as the uncanny guards took her away. Did not even speak, as another plastic person attempted to interrogate her. She just waited for the one in charge. And when they came, she swung...
[Image (c) Can Stock Photo / barbara]
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