By Byron Barton
THE ALARM CLOCK SHATTERED Brandon’s dreams like a transgendered hooker shocks a homophobic John. He tried nestling deeper into his white satin sheets, but the autoblinds had already been triggered, easing open with a mechanical hum, allowing bright rays of warm sun to shine in his face. He blinked twice and thought about trying to cover his head with a sheet, but it would have been a futile gesture. If the sun didn’t keep him awake, his apartment would.
As if cued to his thoughts, a dispassionate, digitized voice, sounding vaguely female said, “It is time to get up. The time is, six. Forty-five. It is time to get up. The time is, six. Forty-five.”
“All right. All right. I’m up,” Brandon said, swinging his legs around to the spotlessly sterile, freshly polished, faux maple wood floors. He walked quickly to the wall, painted ghost white, and hit a button on the control panel, turning off the apartment’s morning alert before the six-forty-six announcement blared out.
Brandon stretched, his white chiffon robe, a shade lighter than his sheets, blowing slightly from the central AC. The filtered air pushed out at exactly seventy two degrees.
As he did every morning, Brandon looked out his floor to ceiling window at the view. From ten stories up, the city was sparkling glass and gleaming metal as far he could see. He never ceased to be amazed by the city’s architectural wonders, the climax of humanity’s rise. His gaze wandered toward the most distant buildings, fading into the horizon. Endless waves of grandeur.
“You are. One, minute late. You are. One, minute late,” the digitized voice said. Brandon sighed and made his way to the bathroom, pulling his toothbrush from its holder. Sensors told his apartment’s computer he was proceeding with the morning’s routine. One minute late for personal hygiene and one minute late for breakfast and he would be two minutes late going out the door. A minor infraction, but enough minor infractions indicated something more serious, such as a health or psychological problem.
Minty water filled his mouth, lubricant for the ultrasonic cleanser that would kill any viridans streptococci lurking. The flavor was an anachronistic remnant, a bone of contention for the Central Health Authority, whose board had recently petitioned the Director to ban it, lest the minty freshness serve as a gateway to other flavors associated with insidious ingredients. Progress and civilization had advanced too far to allow for any potential weakness in its fabric, however small or seemingly innocuous it might seem. Brandon sighed. He would miss the water’s light, crisp nuances and tang, but such was the price of longevity and health. The toll one paid to live life well.
Brandon spit into the sink. Saliva ran down the drain in viscous ropes, past sensors built into the sink.
“Your triglycerides are too, high. Your triglycerides are too, high,” the apartment’s voice rang out. “You are being scheduled for counseling.”
“Damn,” Brandon said under his breath. He was afraid of that. He’d had a bit too much olive oil the night before, at a dinner party sponsored by a higher level member of the Authority. Now he had to see a Health Counselor, one of his colleagues. At a minimum it was an embarrassment. If he ended up with that prick Nathan Edwards, who was still pissed about the time Brandon wrote up his daughter for kissing her boyfriend without the proper medical checks, then Brandon was sure to get a formal reprimand. A formal write up could result in a health audit, which might lead to a stay at a Wellness Camp. Brandon understood the importance of the Camps, and had sent plenty of people there himself, but he sure didn’t want to end up at one. Brandon hurried his routine and rushed out the door.
“Good day and good health,” a woman on the train said as Brandon took an empty seat, sinking into the buttery soft leather. Her skin was flawlessly radiant, alabaster marble contrasting nicely against her black hair. Long and wavy, thick and lush, it fell in heavy curls against her sky blue blouse. Beautiful. But then they all were. Products of the perfect system.
“Good health,” Brandon said. The woman smiled at him. Perfect teeth. Bright white, but not gleaming white. Wait. Was there a flaw? The slightest of stains? The woman, somewhere between twenty-five and-forty five, was far too young to be exhibiting enamel stains. Perhaps she was involved in illegal activities. Perhaps he could trade this information in exchange for overlooking his overindulgence the night before, if he drew Edwards or some other ass for his session.
Brandon checked the time. Given a reference point such as time, the system could determine the woman’s identity by cross referencing Brandon’s RFID chip with those around him. Once they ID’d her via her RFID, they could examine her history and track her movements.
A hum from the maglev’s super cooled electromagnets preceded a gentle lurch as the train accelerated, moving in excess of three hundred miles an hour. Within a minute, the train slowed for the next station. Brandon waited patiently while people exited and entered, politely stepping past one another.
Three terminals later, Brandon said, “This is my stop.”
“Mine too,” the woman said.
They both exited through the sliding doors, paper thin carbon fiber panels, and onto the brightly lit platform.
“I almost feel like I need sunglasses,” the woman said.
Brandon just nodded, uncomfortable at the woman’s innuendo that the high intensity discharge lights, designed to perfectly mimic the sun, minus harmful ultraviolet spectra, were not set to a level ideal for human function.
Despite being three floors underground, the cavernous station was alive with perfectly tended plants in beige and white polycarbonate pots, strategically scattered among vender kiosks selling magazine downloads and algae protein shakes.
Beelining for the tenth street escalator, Brandon noticed the woman not far behind him. There were nearly a hundred different stairways leading to the surface. The odds were thin she would be taking the same route as he. Was she an Authority agent following him? Were those light stains on her teeth a subtle and sophisticated subterfuge to throw him off? Were her borderline blasphemous comments meant to get him to say something incriminating?
Why would the Authority investigate him, though? Brandon wondered. High triglycerides was hardly a matter sufficiently worthy of investigation. It wasn’t as if he were doing something heinous, like eating chicken fried in lard or trading in black market candy. Anyway, there hadn’t been enough time for the Authority to assign someone to him. Or had there? Maybe they had agents ready to go at a moment’s notice. Maybe it was just a random review. He was a Counselor, after all. One corrupt Counselor could cause a cascading chain of damage. Brandon wasn’t so conceited as to think one bad Counselor could cause the downfall of society, but it would be one step on the slippery slope toward obesity and chronic disease and that might cause the downfall of society.
The thought of clogged arteries and fat people made him shudder. The Chronicles were rife with horror stories from the old days, of all you can eat restaurants and high fructose corn syrup, before the government stepped in and fixed things. Before the Authority was born.
Brandon turned and looked at the woman, trying to be inconspicuous. She was looking right at him and caught his eye. Damn. Brandon quickly faced forward, cursing himself for his clumsy blunder. Now, even if she weren’t an agent, he looked socially awkward, and if she was, his actions appeared suspicious.
Once on the surface, Brandon set out for the CHA Complex at a brisk walk. He thought about hailing a cab, but he could hardly afford the credits, and he would have to walk an extra block in the afternoon to fulfill his daily pedometer quota. The last thing he needed was to come up short on an audit.
Personal and public transports whisked by in an elaborate dance, the quiet thrum of electric motors the only sound as onboard computers calculated routes and kept traffic moving in a delicate choreography. Brandon was always amazed at how the vehicles could go so fast, yet remain only a few centimeters from one another. He’d read about traffic jams and snarling gridlocks that used to plague cities in the old days, but Brandon was skeptical. Plenty of pictures and video were available on the net to attest to such a history, but it didn’t make sense. If old time transports were always stuck in traffic, what was the point of owning one?
Brandon could see the sky opening up a bit ahead as he neared Center Street, which led to the Complex. In most areas, high rises of glass and translucent concrete soared to the sky above smog scrubbing ceramic tiles. Within four blocks of Center Street, however, by Authority decree, the height of buildings was limited. Because high rises were designed in such a way so as to allow maximum light to hit the ground, there wasn’t much of an aesthetic difference when walking directly below the buildings as being in the open. It was the line of sight created by opening Center Street up to the sky, creating a grandiose approach to the majestic CHA Complex, rising above the surrounding area like a colossal cathedral, that made the architectural strategy so powerful.
Two blocks later, as he turned onto Center Street, Brandon risked a look behind him. The woman was still there. Now he was sure he was being followed. In a city with fifty million people, one didn’t see the same person twice unless they lived in the same neighborhood or were work colleagues. Or if one purposely sought out another.
Brandon swallowed, his knees getting weak. His stomach felt light, an uncomfortable balloon pushing toward his throat. Brandon concentrated on walking, trying to think of anything he’d done wrong. Surely it wasn’t the extra serving of olive oil. He mostly followed the rules. He was a Counselor for God sakes! Had he said something wrong at dinner last night? Perhaps he had offended his boss or one of the Authority higher ups in attendance. Oh, God, Brandon thought. That must be it. He’d offended someone and was marked. Or perhaps it was a colleague or citizen wanting to get ahead by turning him in for something. Maybe he’d broken a rule and not realized it, leaving the door open for someone with a bit of ambition to make their bones on a Counselor.
“Are you heading to the Complex as well?” Brandon heard the woman say from beside him.
“I’m Jenily,” the woman said, sticking out a hand. Brandon’s eyes almost bugged out of his head. Shaking hands had been banned for decades, a sure way to spread diseases like the Tokyo Influenza, which had wiped out ten percent of the world’s population back in the thirties, thus cementing the Authority’s power.
“Um, Brandon,” Brandon said, pretending the woman’s hand didn’t exist. An ugly wart. Either Jenily was sorely in need of some counseling, or was making a trap for him.
“I’m going to get counseled.”
Brandon’s thundering heart eased a bit. Perhaps Jenily was just a hapless rule breaker, getting the counseling she apparently needed.
“That’s nice,” Brandon said, non-committedly.
Soaring above them, a wonder of the modern age, the Complex took Brandon’s breath away with its magnificence, as it did every morning. He’d heard it had taken over two hundred thousand tons of marble and carbon fiber reinforced ceramic beams, and cost as much as all the Mars colonies combined. As the centerpiece of a healthy civilization, it was well worth it, in Brandon’s opinion.
“Look at that,” Brandon said, his eyes glowing, awestruck.
“One can’t deny it’s stunning,” Jenily said. “What’s your business in the complex?”
Brandon’s moment of exultation died with Jenily’s question. Only an Agent or an insane person would be so nosy in the shadow of the Complex, the Authority’s heart, and insane people were rare these days, institutionalized off planet.
“Why do you ask?” Brandon replied, trying to keep his voice even, not making eye contact. Nutcase or Agent, it was always best not to make eye contact.
“Just being friendly,” Jenily said, smiling. Brandon couldn’t help but feel a stirring in his stomach and a lightness creeping through his chest. A mix of anxiety and elation. All women were beautiful, but there was something sincere and unique about Jenily’s guileless smile. No mentally ill person would have a smile like that. No, she must be an agent trained in breaking down her quarry’s defenses and instilling the exact emotion Brandon was experiencing.
Brandon replied with a half-smile, just enough to acknowledge Jenily’s presence, but not enough to get him in trouble when she reported to the Authority. Thankfully, Jenily was content to walk quietly along the concourse leading to the Complex.
The road was Bomanite, poured to mimic brick pathways, meandering through a grassy mall with trees and flowers. Serene and beautiful. Brandon usually enjoyed the walk through the mall, generally bereft of people, the aura projecting from the Complex keeping them away like a cat repels mice.
As a Counselor, this was Brandon’s house, but today he felt ill at ease with Jenily at his side. Temptation and fear combined to form a dangerous soup.
Inside the Complex, Brandon passed through the security checkpoint for Authority employees, getting a full body scan as he walked toward the security gate.
“Good morning, Dr. Johnson,” the security guard said, giving Brandon’s ID a perfunctory glance.
“Jim,” Brandon said, glad to see a familiar face. Jim had been manning the employee security checkpoint for years.
Beyond Jim, a security detail was stationed in a small room overlooking the checkpoint via a two way mirror. Brandon had witnessed them in action once. A heavyset man, far too fat to be a functioning member of society, was causing problems, shouting something about justice. He was probably a vagrant, or perhaps a subsistence farmer unassociated with a registered co-op, who had managed to bypass the city’s primary security cordon. A half dozen security officials in spider silk polymer black bodysuits with inlaid ceramic plates had poured out of the security room, secured the man by his arms, and dragged him back to their lair. Within thirty seconds, it was as if the fat man had never existed.
Peace and tranquility, briefly interrupted by the unhealthy beast, was restored. Everyone had shrugged and continued with their business.
When Jenily veered toward the visitor line, Brandon breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps she really was a wayward soul in need of counseling. Perhaps this would be the last he saw of her, and these burgeoning unhealthy feelings would fade before they had a chance to take root in his conscious like a cancerous corruption. A tendril of disappointment crept in, poking and prodding, curling around relief, threatening to suffocate it. Despite the imperfection of her stained teeth, there was something wholesome about Jenly’s smile, whether an artifact of agent training or not, it appealed to Brandon in a visceral manner with which he was unfamiliar.
Bad, bad, bad. Brandon pondered the implications of his emotions. As a Counselor he was more capable of honest self-reflection than most. Perhaps the seed of emotional rot and lust had already taken root in his mind. Perhaps, if and when he was called in for his triglyceride counseling, he should fill out a contact report and recommend himself for further evaluation.
No, he had enough problems with the Authority without creating any himself. He’d seen what happened when Counselors with good intentions self-reported, trying to do the right thing, only to lose their reputations and jobs. Two years ago, Counselor Jamison, a close associate of Brandon, reported his wife’s back closet production of milk chocolate, made from nutritional grade dark chocolate. She was gaining weight, partaking in too much of her own supply. After she refused Jamison’s pleas to stop risking their future, he reported her, for her own good.
Instead of getting the help his wife needed, Jamison was blacklisted, his license revoked. If a Counselor couldn’t keep his wife under control, how could he be expected to counsel others?
At the time, Jamison’s censure had made a certain sense, but now Brandon was warily thinking about what might happen if he admitted to a potential infatuation. Infatuation led to physical desire, which led to attenuated reasoning, which led to unhealthy choices, which started society on the pathway to chaos and ruin, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the second decade of the twenty first century, when gluttony and chronic disease nearly destroyed society. Before farsighted leaders made hard decisions, taking lifestyle choices out of the hands of the people. It started by banning colas over sixteen ounces in size and led to the founding of the Central Health Authority, saving civilization from itself. No, Brandon could never admit any feelings of desire if he didn’t want to end up in Wellness Camp somewhere eating tofu, starting each day with a ten mile run, and sitting in health indoctrination classes for twelve hours a day.
A half hour later and Brandon was in his office, a windowless room in the bowels of the Complex. Someday, perhaps he would get one of the many windowed offices looking out over the city, but such a luxury was considered a distraction to efficient counseling. Anyway, there were thousands of counselors. There wouldn’t be enough prime offices for all of them, despite the huge size of the Complex.
So far Brandon hadn’t received an official reprimand for his triglyceride levels. Maybe the system was slow today, or maybe they had decided to let it slide. Brandon logged into the network and checked his schedule. He expected another day of listening to people’s problems. Too many calories. Not enough exercise. Low vitamin levels of one sort or another. Kissing with an expired permit. Once he’d even counseled a couple who had engaged in intercourse before obtaining a permit and the requisite medical tests. It was only by the Authority’s grace they didn’t end up in a Camp. Perhaps they had been related to an Authority bigwig.
Brandon saw the first name on his schedule and almost had a myocardial infarction. Jenily Jones. Maybe it was a coincidence. There had to be plenty of Jenily’s out there, but to believe it a coincidence required thin reasoning. Brandon’s heart thumped like an old school racecar engine with a thrown piston and his breathing came in shallow huffs.
Why was he so scared? Brandon wondered. Not because of anything he had done, but because of the recklessness Jenily inspired in him. Any sort of fraternization with a subject was an ethical violation beyond measure. Brandon sensed that with Jenily in his life, in any capacity, the possibilities for error were enormous.
Maybe he should go home sick. Sickness was rare, but it happened. His biomonitor would reveal the truth, but he could say it was psychosomatic, a reaction from knowing about the high triglycerides. They would have a hard time proving differently and it might even help his cause, demonstrating extreme guilt at his excess from the night before.
Brandon quickly abandoned any fantasy of avoiding Jenily. Any ploy would be obvious if their commute together became known. He should either file a contact report and recuse himself, or gut it out. Brandon decided to gut it out.
There was a knock on the door. His interface revealed Jenily on the other side. Brandon felt a sickening buoyancy in his stomach and a hot flash on his skin, as if the room had suddenly increased thirty degrees. Once upon a time, in a rush of youthful caprice, Brandon had fancied himself in love. Those long ago feelings and his current physical distress were not unalike, but that was a boyish lark, born of ignorance and an excess of hormones. What was this? Some sort of neurodegenerative disease mimicking love? Something else?
Brandon gathered himself and pressed a button, causing the door to slide open with a whispered whoosh of air.
“Brandon?” Jenily asked when seeing him, seemingly surprised. Brandon felt his face flush, but did his best to put on an authoritative air.
“Ah, Jenily. It’s Dr. Johnson, actually. In here at least.” Brandon added the last without thinking, causing him further discomfit. It should always be Dr. Johnson. Everywhere. Now that he’d seen Jenily in a professional capacity. “What can I do for you?”
“I have an addiction.”
“An addiction?” Addictions were a one way ticket to a Wellness Camp. “Why haven’t you been enrolled in a Camp?”
“Well, I’m technically here for temporarily high glucose levels, but it was born of my addiction to colas.”
Ah, that made more sense. The link between Jenily’s addiction and its physiological result hadn’t yet been made by the Authority. Now that Brandon had an admittance of cause for the high blood glucose levels, and a confession to an addiction, protocol dictated he immediately forward her case for Camp processing, but he didn’t. He wanted to hear more. For professional reasons, he told himself, already working up an excuse should an auditor review the case transcript. Every word ever spoken in the Complex and every other building and public space was recorded and stored, in perpetuity.
“Hmm. Are you aware of the risks of drinking colas?”
“Of course.” The way Jenily’s lips formed the words pierced Brandon, cutting through the last of his professional resolve. His heart rate increased. He suddenly became acutely aware of Jenily’s creamy neckline, blue silk naturally draped below the half cleric collar, exposing a tantalizing sliver of flawless skin. Modest, yet somehow insinuating an abandoned excess of flesh, held in check by mere inches of fabric. Brandon’s vision started to fade into blackness, punctuated with white flashes of light, as if he were facing an anonymous crowd of photographers.
Focus on the flaws, Brandon ordered his brain, trying to maintain a smidgeon of professional dignity. He only hoped he appeared more cognizant than he felt. He thought of Jenily’s stained teeth, trying to exaggerate the discoloration in his mind, but it did little to erase the thought of what lay inches south of Jenily’s open neckline, obscured only by an impossibly thin piece of silk.
“Is everything okay?” Jenily asked, her voice sultry.
Had her voice dropped an octave? Brandon wondered. Husky voices in females were rare, reserved for old movies, from the days when people still killed themselves with cigarettes.
“Where do you get your colas?” Brandon finally managed to ask, hoping the new line of questioning would keep his mind occupied. A part of his brain told him to get up and walk away. Feign an emergency or thirst or anything, as long as it got him out of the room, but Brandon could no more leave than an Authority doctor could mistreat a patient.
“Will I get in trouble if I tell you?” Jenily asked.
“No, of course not. Everything here is confidential.” In truth, Brandon was required to file a report in the Authority database. Health Enforcers would then hunt down and arrest black marketeers, shipping them off to a Camp, where they would be taught the folly of their ways and could be reintegrated into society.
“I make it.”
“You make it?” Brandon asked, incredulous. “But where do you get the raw materials?” Sugar was tightly regulated, available only at certain food factories with the proper permits.
“I have a friend, from out in the countryside. He grows sugar beets.”
It was against the law to grow cane or beets, but rural types in the hills, where land wasn’t sufficiently tillable to fit into the commercial co-op’s efficiency quotas, did it all the time. Smuggling it into the city, under the ubiquitous eye of the Authority, was another matter.
“You are aware this is against the law?”
“I know, but it’s an addiction. Can you help me?”
“Well, there’s always a Wellness Camp.”
“No, please.” Brandon felt paralyzed by the desperation in Jenily’s voice. “Not the Camps.”
“But the Camps are there to help you.” Everyone knew the Camps were a cornerstone in the Authority’s ability to maintain a healthy society.
“Please. Perhaps you could personally help me. Perhaps you could come over to my place.” Jenily let the last sentence hang in the air.
Brandon’s mouth went dry. Was Jenily simply suggesting extensive one on one counseling? Or something more? Counselor’s had to have special permission to ply their trade outside the Complex. As for something more, the idea was so far beyond the pale of any ethical standard as to be unthinkable. Yet Brandon found his imagination running through illicit scenarios, an erotic daydream out of control. He imagined Jenily’s silk blouse slipping down over her shoulders, gently caressing smooth flesh before fluttering to the ground.
“Dr. Johnson?” Jenily’s voice cut through his reverie.
“Uhm. Yes. Uh. What did you have in mind?” Everything was surreal. Was it really his voice speaking? He studied his hands to avoid looking at Jenily’s eyes. It was as if they belonged to someone else, phantom limbs resting on his knees, only marginally under his control. Brandon realized he was sweating. He only hoped Jenily didn’t notice. Perspiration in the absence of exercise or extreme environmental heat was a flaw, a sign of ill health.
“I think you know.” Jenily tilted her head forward, big doe eyes flashing, rays of sunlight off a bottomless lake.
Brandon felt his throat constrict. He felt as if he were in a malfunctioning transport, all control lost. Destination unknown. Was he really going to do this? Things were going too fast, almost as if decisions were being made for him.
“Uhm. Okay. How does this work?”
“You tell me, you’re the Counselor.”
“Come by my place at nineteen hundred tonight.” Brandon found himself saying, the words flowing as if on their own volition. There was no turning back now. If the Authority ever reviewed his transcripts, he was toast. He only hoped the forbidden fruit tasted sufficiently sweet to make it all worthwhile.
A hardening in Jenily’s eyes sent warning bells clanging in the part of his brain still capable of thought. Within a second, he had put it together.
She was an agent, after all.
“Only for health counseling. Coming over, that is. Come over for additional health counseling. Only counseling. Nothing else,” Brandon said, trying to backpedal.
“It’s too late, Counselor,” Jenily said, any pretense of familiarity gone, warmth and possibility replaced by a steel demeanor less accessible than the rings of Saturn.
Brandon’s energy fled like fructose addicts from salad. He hung his head, too defeated even to chastise himself for not listening to his initial instincts. He’d pegged her as an agent from the start, but she’d got him in the end. The stains were a nice touch. Just subtle enough to make her story buyable.
“Come get him,” Jenily said. No doubt they had been listening through his office receivers from the moment Jenily had walked in the door. They probably had him miked since the train.
Seven security personnel marched in, guns drawn.
“Why?” Brandon asked, looking up at Jenily, the gravity of his position beginning to dawn on him. He’d worked all his life to be a Counselor. To help people. All the people he’d sent off to Camps, some screaming and crying, had been for their own good and the betterment of society.
“Random integrity test. All the Counselors get one every few years,” Jenily said. “It won’t be so bad. We have a special Camp for Counselors. A few years of rehabilitation, and you’ll be eligible to apply for reintegration.”
“And my job?”
“You’ll never be a Counselor again.”
Brandon nodded. He’d expected as much.
Four of the security holstered their weapons and moved to either side of Brandon. They gripped him by his arms and dragged him away.
Byron Barton holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Vermont. He is currently living in Aruba. His science fiction novel, “X349,” can be read in serial format at Jukepop Serials. Recent short stories have appeared in “Remembrances of Wars Past: A War Veterans Anthology” and “Year’s End” anthology.