Friday, January 17, 2014

The Ballad of Don by Ross Burton

Don rebels against his claustrophobic existence in Ross Burton's high-tech world of the future.

1

Don woke early, as usual, when the soft chimes sounded and a gentle breeze stirred the room. He stretched, got up from the sleeping shelf, which soundlessly slid into the wall. Over to the corner shower closet for depilation and cleaning, then back to the fresh set of clothes which had arrived at the delivery port. The small table produced his usual breakfast, which he ate while the wall vid gave him that morning's news headlines in cartoon form. After precisely fifteen minutes the table tipped away from him; he grabbed his cup as the plates disappeared into the waste slot, and the panel to his right glowed. His chair swivelled smoothly towards it and the keyboard emerged underneath the screen.

Good morning Don. Today's workload is displayed. Urgent tasks are: comms from Finance and Procurement, comm from Din Budro, comm from the Tahiti office. Which would you like to take first?

Din.

Very well.

The morning progressed, as it always did. Don was diligent, and got through all of his assigned tasks before lunch.

Don, you have no more tasks. Would you like some music or a vid?

No, I think I'll go out.

Are you sure? Today's temperature is not pleasant.

How would you know what's pleasant you stupid machine? Open the door.

There was a click, and the door to his apartment opened. Don got up from his chair, stretched his back, and stood in the doorway. Nobody else seemed to be thinking of going out. Perhaps they believed the comp's persuasive tones. He took a step into the hallway. A faint orange light glowed at the end of the hall, and he strode towards it, revelling in the freedom to take more than three paces without hitting a wall. As he went he rapped on each door he passed. Behind him he heard some doors clicking open, imagined the surprised faces of his co-workers peeking out, wondering what this unusual interruption could be.

When he reached the full-length window at the end of the hall he stopped and turned. There were half a dozen people strung along the hallway, looking at him. More were in their doorways, heads angled comically from the smooth magnolia wall of the corridor.

What's going on?

Why did you knock on my door?

Who the hell are you?

Don waited, arms folded. Then he turned, and with all his force kicked at the window. His foot bounced back from the toughened glass. One or two of the watchers shouted, one moved forward as if to grab him, stop him, but nobody touched him. He looked around. Over by the lift was a panel with a sunken handle; inside that panel, he knew, was on old-fashioned fire extinguisher.

The metal canister was heavy, and held by bright orange straps. He ripped it out and hefted it with both hands, and, straining, hurled it against the window. It bounced back, hitting his shoulder, then thudded to the ground. He massaged his sore shoulder, staring at the window: it was cracked! His strength renewed, he hefted the extinguisher and swung it at the glass, which buckled and cracked again. Another swing, another dull thud, and the glass fell out, in a single piece, and tumbled through the air.

Heat. Wind. Don felt the calm, cool air around him retreating under the fierce assault. He stood in the opening, revelling in the sensation. Behind him, doors slammed as his neighbours retreated into their rooms. Fools. He looked downwards. He wasn't that far from the ground, two storeys maybe. Hell, it wouldn't hurt really. He went back a few paces, then ran at the opening and launched himself out, into the void. Legs and arms cartwheeling, he had, momentarily, a sensation of flying, of wonderful freedom; then he fell like a stone. The ground rushed up at him, unbelievably fast, a noise, louder than he had ever heard, blinding pain. Nothing.



2

Light. Pain. He was on a narrow bed, in a small room, which hummed softly; it was cool, and soft light spilled from the corners of the ceiling. He moved his head to the left, then the right; a mechanism of some sort stood silently, dark. When he moved his head towards it, a voice:

Hello Don, are you in pain?

He managed a croak.

Yes. Thirsty.

A thin arm emerged from the side of the machine, rested against his flesh; there was a slight hiss, he felt an icy cold sensation, then the pain ebbed away. He relaxed, and a second arm emerged, no, this was a tube, flexible, snaking toward his mouth. He grabbed the end with his lips and a cool liquid, slightly bitter, flooded his mouth. He moved his head away, swallowed. Some drops of the liquid fell on his shoulder, and another arm emerged, swabbed it with a soft cloth. Don slept then, and awoke with a ravenous hunger and burning thirst.

Thirsty. Hungry.

As soon as the words left his cracked lips a tube snaked towards his mouth. He was expecting the cool liquid again, but it was something different, like thin soup, and it was warm. He swallowed it greedily, feeling the nutrients flooding his body.

Are you in pain, Don?

No. Where am I? How long have I been here?

You are in room 1107 in the central hospital, Don. You have been here for seven days.

Seven days! He flexed his arms: slight pain, but bearable. Next, his legs. He winced, almost cried out.

Your right leg was broken in the fall, Don. You must lie still.

He lay still, as the machine said, and thought.

What will happen to me?

Your leg is getting better, and we will try to help your mental state.

How will you do that? Help me mentally I mean.

A counsellor will be coming to see you tomorrow, Don. Would you like to watch a vid? Listen to some music?

No.

He lay back and stared at the ceiling, and thought about what all this meant. He had tried to escape, or was he trying to take his own life? He couldn't remember, but he was tired, so tired... as he drifted off to sleep again he began to wonder exactly what drugs he'd been given.

Later, he returned to that thought. Had he been trying to kill himself, or just escape? Was he bored? He was confused, his mind felt like it was filled with wool, and he felt oddly detached. He really didn't know what he had been thinking when he jumped through the window. He knew that he was fed up with the daily routine, the sameness of everything. He might have been happy, in the past, to escape with the vids and the meds, perhaps an alcopop, once the monotony of the day's work was done, but not any more. He had a hole in his existence, something was missing. He drifted back into a drug-induced, dream-free slumber, and when he woke again he couldn't remember what he'd been thinking. He began to feel angry, and felt himself tensing. The silent machine standing guard by his bed awoke, and a probe slid silently towards him.

No more. No meds.

The arm withdrew. That was easy, he thought.

Thirsty.

The feeding tube snaked to his mouth, and he gulped down the cool liquid. It tasted bitter... he felt his mind slipping, slipping...



3

Consciousness returned; Don became aware of something in the room besides his silent robot nurse. No, not something, somebody. The movements weren't smooth enough, and definitely not silent enough, to be made by a machine.

A voice: Shh. Don't say anything.

He turned his head and found himself uncomfortably close to a pair of staring eyes. The face the eyes were set in didn't make Don feel any more comfortable; patchy stubble, cracked lips, filthy, broken teeth, hair standing up in tufts. And there was a smell.

Can you move? Can you walk?

Don shook his head. I'm not sure. I don't know how long I've been here.

Try. I'll help you.

For some reason, he wanted to do what this strange man said. He turned on to his side, heaved himself upright so that his legs dangled over the edge of the bed. So far so good. No pain. The stranger put his arm round his back, held him tight, with his hand under his right arm. Don recoiled from the closeness of his touch, and the smell. But he allowed himself to be helped off the bed, and put all his weight on his good leg. Gingerly, he placed the other leg on the floor. A slight stiffness, but the intense pain he had braced himself for didn't come. With the stranger's help, he shuffled across the floor. The sentinel by his bed made no move or sound. The door was slightly ajar, because of a small piece of strange looking material jammed into the opening. The man pushed the door open, stooped and picked it up.

He held it out to Don. Wood. From outside. See.

Don took the thing in his hand. It wasn't smooth, like almost everything else he had touched in his life. It had a strange roughness to it, and parts of it seemed to be flaking away. The pair made their way down the silent corridor, past closed doors, until they came to a door which had a slice of light down one edge. The stranger pushed it open, and they were - outside. Colours, sounds, smells, movement, all assailed his senses. Another pair of hands grabbed at him, and he was pulled towards some tall... trees? Don had seen such things in old vids but never this close. They were huge. And messy, he realised, as he was pulled through the trailing leaves, into the cool darkness of the woods. The smell overpowered even the personal odour of his rescuers. He turned to look at the new one; he was even scruffier than the first one, but he didn't smell any worse. This whole place smelled like nothing he had ever dreamed of. Underlying everything was a strange odour, sweet and sour at the same time, which repelled him but was at the same time strangely attractive.

He stumbled over the rough ground, fell into something soft and sticky. He was paralysed by disgust.

Come on, got to keep moving. Let's get him on the stretcher, Patrick.

Patrick? His brain was trying to process the strangeness of a name with more than three letters when he was lifted into the air, and set down roughly on a piece of material slung between two long poles. His rescuers picked up the stretcher and he felt himself being carried through a dark forest. The journey was horrendously uncomfortable; Don had to hold on to the sides of the stretcher to keep from falling out and he had to grit his teeth against the pain from his leg. He realised he must have still been under the influence of the meds when he got out of his bed. For a moment he wished he was back in the safe, calm environment of his hospital room, but that feeling was overcome by the excitement he felt to be here, in this strange place, with these strange people. He began to think of them as noble savages; the fact that they'd carried out a daring rescue just to help him made him forgive the roughness of their handling and the discomfort he was going through. This, he realised, was the start of a new, exciting life for him. Despite the pain and the discomfort, he smiled to himself.

After what seemed an eternity, they stopped, and he was lowered to the ground, then tipped from the stretcher, which made him cry out with pain. As he recovered he looked around. He was lying on something green, soft and yielding, in a wide clearing. Nearby stood a large fire, with flames - real flames - flickering softly around its edges. Three more dishevelled specimens of humanity that had been sitting at the fire got up and inspected him with interest. One of them hurried off back into the woods, and the other two stood over him. One prodded him.

Bit skinny.

Don didn't understand what was going on, but thought he should try and make a good impression. Hi. My name's Don. Thanks so much for rescuing me. My leg's pretty sore, do you have any meds?

We'll sort that for you, don't worry about it. No pain soon.

I could do with some water if you have it, and I'm very hungry. Do you have any food?

They all laughed. Don looked from one to the other, confused. He saw the remaining one emerge from the woods with an armful of something, which he piled on the fire. It responded immediately, the flames rising higher and making a loud crackling noise.

Yeah, one of them said, we've got food all right. You.

Don saw an upraised arm, holding a large rock. The rock hit his head with unbelievable force. Pain such as he had never experienced washed over him, subsumed him. He was almost relieved when the rock smashed into him again, and he felt no more.

3 comments:

  1. dark view of the future, but maybe not inaccurate. very nicely written, excellent ending.

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. Whoa - didn't see that coming. Nice build up and really, sort of taking the reader down one alley, only to leave them in shock with a bombshell.

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  3. I liked it, well written, great twist at end, didn't expect that!

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