Where Man Lost his Soul by Reuben Zammit
Problem Solver #2018 felt parched but walking to the nearest of the legally mandated water dispensers standing at regulation 80m intervals would mean giving up his 1 by 1 hot-desk to one of the 5% lurking around the low-ceilinged vault, the further ends of which spanned away beyond eyesight. Their random yelps and groans as they were flogged by any one of the 50 managers marching up and down the rows and columns were a good reminder to all good problem-solvers why they were not to be envied, despite circumstances. Besides, he didn’t want to have to pee.
He didn’t mind the cries of pain from the 5% inasmuch as their small-talk and incessant camaraderie. Even in this hellhole, the bottom-feeders had to find something to be jubilant about as he heard a throng to the east of him very loudly proclaim one of their own as emperor of the Eastern Wastes. A decimal meeting of Problem Solvers #1321 to #1330 huddled uselessly next to three hot-desks closer by was a much worse distraction, as they took care to very loudly enunciate every meaningless resolution taken never to be implemented or regarded. Even from around the corner of the toilet cubicle standing just a few metres away south-east of him, their voices were very loud and penetrative. In here, the more loudly obnoxious you were, the less likely you were to be flogged by the managers. The Twelve Directors insisted on good and effective intra- and inter-decimational communication and coordination at all times. “We’re all family”, “No man is an island”, and “It embarrasses us to even have to say this, but somebody is leaving faecal matter in toilet cubicle C19, please use the toilet brush” were their three favourite mottoes. Problem Solver #2018 had still not submitted his vote on the monthly poll on whether the culprit was a Problem Solver, a manager, or whether it was simply a conspiracy puzzle by the Twelve Directors. The compulsory deadline was in three days, which meant he would have to stay even longer at the hot-desk until he made up his mind. Thankfully, the food-capsule ration for the day stored in the bottom drawer underneath the desk had still not been consumed. Although he would have some difficulty with swallowing the assortment of elongated blue, burgundy, yellow, and white pills with his dry throat.
#2018 solved the 50th problem of the day on the 11th hour despite the cacophony of constant grinding ambience and random jolting noises taking place all around him, prompting an automated descent of colourful balloons with the word ‘congratulations’ from the nearest squat grey mechanical box crouching on the ceiling. A joyful siren started ringing out, and Problem Solvers jubilantly rose from all the hot-desks within a 50m radius, as per Regulation #3874b, and loudly clapped and cheered, with even some enthusiastic attempts at an off-key unsynchronised ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’. #2018 sat unperturbed through the commotion thanks to the white capsules, the only ones he had ingested so far, working through the 51st problem assigned. His chronic headache had subsided to a gentle throb and much of the noise was being blocked and filtered by his chemically rewired brain.
Thirteen solutions later, when his puffy eyes would not allow him to distinguish the words on the screen of his personal work portable computer any longer, he initiated the update and shutdown procedure on the Windows 95 relic and made use of the 15 minute wait by applying the tourniquet from the second-bottom drawer to his left arm, tapping around with his right fore-finger, and jabbing the needle into the most convenient vein. The whoosh of the brown liquid gave him almost instant relief, restoring his five senses, his eyesight improving to the point he could make out the GM initials on the small glass vial.
As he walked away with the portable computer swinging in its duffel bag, Problem Solver #9435, who had been 5%ing for the last hour, immediately replaced him, placing his own portable machine on the hot-desk and cracking his fingers. #2018 hobbled to the toilet cubicle first (he had no hope of dislodging at least some of the skid marks with the slight dribble he produced today) and then to the water dispenser, filling all three of his 2l water-canteens completely and daintily sipping on the first one before having finished this ritual. Panic flooded him as he hobbled painfully but swiftly back to the hot-desk. The capsules had not been consumed yet, and Problem Solver #9435 conveniently ignored him, absorbed in his own problems, as #2018 silently pocketed them and gently closed the drawer again. Hobbling away again, this time to what he remembered to be the nearest end of the vault to his current position, he thoroughly wetted his mouth and throat first, then painfully swallowed each pill one by one, each with a generous gulp of water.
As he hobbled painfully and very slowly to his destination, he started growing impatient with the 5%ers standing in his way who he had to weakly push aside every time to pass through the narrow aisles. The brown stuff always made him more aware and energetic but irritable. The walk seemed gruelling and endless, and the mandated flickering electric tube every regulation 40m was starting to hurt his eyes again.
After a 30-minute shuffle, he finally arrived at the white wall. Lightening still flickered from outside, as it had for the past 16 months. He painfully craned his torso and arms onto the nearest window-sill and rested his by-now tired body there, catching his breath and relaxing his upper body muscles, most of which had been tense or flexing at work all day, including his frown-muscles, and taking some weight off his atrophying legs.
With barely a second separating each burst of lightening, #2018 could see outside even better than he could in the murky daylight five and a half years ago. The weather-cycle seemed to be improving at last, or at least making life more bearable. Hundreds of thousands of Citizens, Denizens, Centizens, and Millizens milled and thronged around outside, oblivious of the lightening zapping at the thick forest of 50m high metal poles, their bottom 5m clad with thick insulation, which were shielding them.
His grandmother had told him stories of a dying planet before she was taken away. He remembered her wild, fantastic stories of scorching heat, drying water, freak-storms, and floods. He was glad the world had finally stabilised. Climate-patterns had started settling into a familiar routine at last, and most portions of the planet were sticking to the same weather for years on end now, affording more regularity, forward-planning, and human management than even the BT years, when regular seasons still brought not only unwelcome change but also a substantial degree of unpredictability. “This is life,” he murmured drowsily but in an almost dreamy tone, as he stared out at the bustling betropolis.
He still had a little distance to cover before he could rest. Jolting awake after an hour of sleeping standing up as he leant against the sill, he shuffled more serenely along the wall, continuously leaning against it for support, passing by and ignoring the three massive steel vault-doors on his way, until he encountered a blue wall 10 minutes into his shuffle, standing perpendicular to the white outside wall. Break Room Blue. Another 2 minutes’ shuffle brought him to the nearest door, wooden, white, narrow, and efficient, leading into the room.
Problem Solver #2018 breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped inside. The lighting was soft and gentle here, despite being regulation white, a safe haven even from the otherwise mandated flickering tubes. The ambience music fluting through the speakers had been changed from whale sounds to birdsong since his last break. Even the break from the sight of endlessly lined-up hot-desks was a welcome sight for him. Visual monotony wasn’t improved by much, as the sleek machines, four on top of each other, stretched around all four walls of the fairly large but relatively cosy room, punctuated at regular intervals by four doors each on two sides of the room and four barred windows each on the others. Ever since the wind had died down three years ago, the windows’ height had been reduced by half to make way for eight gently humming mechanical ventilators drawing in the fresh still air from outside. The grand tower was still not completely visible any more from inside the room unless you stepped right up to a window, an unfortunate but necessary consequence which was regretted by most Problem Solvers and even management.
Problem Solver #2018 was extremely annoyed on finding an Out of Order hanging on his pod, irrationally feeling personally slighted by this inconvenience. He cleared most of his belongings, including his catheter bag, from the storage and containment areas situated in his pod and moved them over to one of the TUR pods, always located bottom, with their unique lengthwise narrow black stripe, before climbing in and shutting himself in.
After watching a five-minute safety instruction video on the small blue-light-filtered touchscreen in front of him, Problem Solver #2018 belted both regulation safety belts around him and gently pressed the black button located above his chest with the open palm of his hand. As a gentle waft of blue-grey smoke filled the capsule, forcibly lulling him to a week-long sleep, one final thought crossed Problem Solver #2018’s mind.
He’d forgotten to submit his vote on the monthly poll.