Caster waited for the bell on his wrist to stop chiming and began putting the tools on his table back into their respective compartments, closing the doors to his desk and packing it in for another day. He spent a few minutes massaging his hands before grabbing his lunch container from the receptacle in the recreation commons. Cramping was a killer, they said, and could morph into full-fledged neuropathy if not regularly treated.
Grabbing a hold of it and his jacket, he grabbed the 17:25 tram to his block back in Neufield, the tenement complex where many engineers and foundry workers resided. Plenty of people had crowded their way onto this liner, but few had the same look he did.
But this was not surprising, as most munitions and electricals seemed to be pulling double-duty these days. With ongoing inspections and screenings, many people like Caster had to be pulled from the line and given all the appropriate tests. He was sure they would be back at it, once the Interior cleared them or got all their neurology back in working order.
The tram dropped him off at his node just after 17:40. He could already feel his stomach rumbling and the desire for beef stroganoff growing inside him. The Open Menu on his kitchenette printer had been advertising the week’s most popular food items and that one seemed to stand out for him. For the past hour now, he could taste the salty, cheesy, beefy goodness on his tongue. And given the kind of day it had been, he planned to crack open a few cans of draught to wash it down.
It was a bit of a chore getting onto the platform from the tram. Many people were crowding on at this junction, maids and housekeeping staff who were coming off their own jobs, cleaning tenements and blocks for people who worked deeper in the district. Each one had the smell of antibacterial and antiseptic solution on them. Were it not for the fact that his olfactory senses had been dulled by years of working with industrial lubricants and solvents, Caster might have cringed.
He felt something tap against his foot and looked down. There, just on the edge of the platform, a small satchel bag had landed. It looked like faux-leather, and there a buckle on the front that looked like some kind of bird, perhaps a cultural symbol of some kind. The last of the people brushed past him and he reached down to grab it.
The tram emitted a small hum as the maglev rails began to charge again and get ready to shoot them off. He quickly raised the bag and called to everyone inside before the door’s closed.
“Excuse me? Did someone drop this?”
All the heads inside turned to look at him, their faces composed and polite, but no one reacting immediately. Then out from the bunch, a young lady stepped forward looking aghast.
“Oh my, that is mine!”
“Ah, well take it before you ship off,” Caster said with a smile. He held it out to her and she strained inside to reach through. There hands touched in the middle as she took hold of the bag.
Caster’s heart began to slow and his eyes immediately went to hers. She looked back at him, her face twisted in a look of mild panic. For a moment, neither of them did anything. They just stood there immobile, each watching the other for signs of suspicious intent.
The automated voice came on. “Please leave the doors clear!”
Caster let go. The woman retreated back inside and held the bag to her chest protectively. Her eyes were immediately downcast and everyone inside looked at her with the same expression Caster had. A small bubble formed around her as the door’s shut and the tram began to move. By the time it had pulled off, Caster could just make out the sizable space the tram’s many passengers had created by shifting and squeezing tighter to the walls.
The tram disappeared into the distance a few seconds later. Caster turned around and slowly collected himself, his breathing returning to normal. He raised his eyes to the platform station a moment later, noticed the sign hanging on the nearest wall.
Have I Got It? it said in large, bold font. The picture was of a man standing in the middle of a room, people pulling back from all sides and looking up him with fear. Some point there fingers accusingly, the word coming from all their mouths indicated at the bottom in over-sized block letters.
* * *
The lights came on in the entrance foyer, the closet opening and the wall panel activating to show him bright pictures of pastoral scenery. The words Welcome Home similar appeared above it all, and a set of blue birds flew between the o’s to give it dramatic effect.
Removing his hat, he tossed it into the sliding closet and proceeded to remove his jacket. He had almost tossed it in as well before he realized the contents of his pocket were still inside. A quick scurry-check inside produced the box-like device he had been keeping there. He had to make sure he had it on hand, just in case he had an unexpected visitor later…
“Lights,” he said, coming into the living room. The house’s automated systems obliged and turned on the main lighting units, and the panels accorded him a similarly beautiful view of some random countryside. Some lovely flute music came on and gave the view a lovely, soft auditory accompaniment.
He paused halfway through on his way to the kitchenette and frowned. No, the scenery and the sounds weren’t cutting it for him right now. He felt somehow in the mood for something more… tropical.
“Beachside,” he side aloud. “Caribbean… soca-calypso accompaniment.”
The view changed immediately. Now he was surrounded by four walls that actively beamed the bright image of a white sand beach with an azure blanket of water into his home. In the background, the sounds of metal drums, shakers and softly-strummed guitars began to play.
Grabbing a tall, cold can from the reefer unit, he popped the tab and took a long haul. The sweet, cold frothy brew dribbled down his chin, but he didn’t much care. Everything felt right. Even his little altercation at the train stop didn’t seem to matter now.
What’s the worst that could happen? he thought. The symptoms didn’t manifest themselves for weeks, it was said. And his next mandatory checkup would be sure to screen him for it. Since the introduction of the neuropathic virus – some said it was designed by the enemy as a way of eroding their resolve, others that some anarcho-terrorist traitors had released it to infect everyone with a desire for peace – the state physicians and psychiatrists had got a good handle on how to track and nullify it.
Besides, he would be sure to notice if any began to show up early. The infographics, seminars and adverts were all very clear on what to look for…
Do you question the war effort?
Do you find yourself becoming over-sympathetic with the enemy?
Do you consider discouraging people from enlisting?
Do you listen to the appeals of Pacifists and agree with them?
Does victory seem impossible to you?
And of course, the one article which directly concerned all people in Caster’s field:
Do you question the work you do for the state and the armed services?
Many a time, Caster had been forced to answer that question in a screening. He always replied to them thusly:
“I enjoy my work, knowing full-well that the missiles I help assemble are used to kill the enemy overseas and wherever they else they might be.”
He once wanted to add “or enemy civilians in their hamlets” to the mix, but felt it might come off as ironic. Such a statement could be interpreted as sedition. It was always best to be honest without employing humor. Of course, that didn’t stop from him from concluding his screening with the same statement every time:
“I pay my taxes so that Interior can continue to root out any bastard who thinks otherwise, and who insist on asking me these questions every few weeks.”
He chuckled at the thought as he took another long haul from the can, wiped his chin to mop up the next bit of dribbles.
On the way out of the kitchenette, he stopped short to punch in his order for dinner from the printer. Beef Stroganoff, as planned, minor adjustments for fatty acids and proteins, low carb choice. Though they weren’t nearly as common as screenings, his last physical had turned up some rather ugly results vis a vis his cholesterol and something they called BMI. Healthy eating, that was the plan from now on!
Then he stepped into the living room again… and stopped short. The last mouthful he had taken in dribbled out of his mouth an exclamation tried to escape his lips.
Sitting in his seat, wearing the ash-grey suit of an agent, his legs crossed comfortably, was the familiar face from the Interior.
“Agent Gordon! What are you doing here?”
“I told you I’d be coming by this week,” he said, arms spread to the sides in an apologetic gesture.
Caster wiped at his face with his sleeve, trying to mop up the ample supply of suds that had moistened his face. He noticed that it got all the way down his uniform too and grumbled.
“So you decided to sneak in while I was preparing my dinner?” he said angrily.
“Don’t be silly,” said Gordon. “I’ve been here for fifteen minutes. Was using your bathroom when you came in.”
Caster shook his head and placed the can down behind him on the kitchenette counter. Reaching into his pocket, he produced the small black box he had stowed there.
“I trust this is what you’re after?”
“Yes,” said Gordon, looking at it interestedly. “Did you have any trouble slipping into your boss’ office?”
“No…” said Caster, turning it over and inspecting the small slot where the memory card lay. “He has regular meetings with the engineers to discuss the new quotas, new delivery schedules. He’s good like that. It was easy slipping it in.”
Pulling the memory card out, he handed both it and the box to Gordon separately. Gordon tucked the box away in his jacket pocket and looked at the memory card, as if doing so could somehow give him a sense of its contents.
“Under his desk, like we discussed?”
“Yes,” Caster replied. “Like you said. The acoustics were best there. Whatever he said privately to anyone there, or communicated over a private line, that would have picked it up.”
“Good… I can’t tell you what a service you did for us. Lord knows its difficult to gain access to a industry man’s data streams. This,” he shook the memory card, “could be just the proof we need to expose a dangerous man.”
Caster grabbed a stool from next to the counter and sat down. He emitted a large grunt as he shuffled his tired frame onto the meager cushioning.
“You’re sure about him, though?” Gordon looked up at him questingly. “That he’s been infected? You sure he picked up a strain? I mean, he’s required to go through screening as much as the rest of us.”
Gordon smiled benevolently. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if we weren’t sure. Besides, whether it’s due to a new type that’s difficult to detect, or worse, we’re sure that he’s guilty of sedition. All that remains is to prove it.” He shook the memory card in the air, heralding it as if it were the proposed solution to that problem, then slowly stood up. “You’re government thanks you, Mr. Caster. Know that your efforts will be rewarded, if they should prove to have been… fruitful.”
Caster stood too and began following Gordon to the door to see him out. He was immediately overcome with the desire to ask the obvious before he left.
What did he mean by fruitful?
Wasn’t the deal that he would be first in line to succeed his boss once he was arrested?
Wasn’t there an implied financial bonus as well?
But of course, those were all sidelined as his curiosity got the better of him and he found himself asking something else entirely.
“Sir, what did you mean by that… or worse?” Gordon turned and gave him that same questing look again. Caster explained. “You know, you said it might be a hard-to-detect strain… or worse.”
That got him another gentle smile. Gordon even chuckled a little before replying. “What I meant, Mr. Caster, is that pacifistic tendencies aren’t just the result of the Pax virus. In some cases, they are born of a sense of placidity and the belief that the enemy of this state is in fact trustworthy.” He stepped closer to Caster, and immediately lost all traces of warmth. ” I think you’ll agree, such tendencies are far worse than any infectious neurovirus. They are inborn, undetectable, and far more deserving of punishment.”
Caster felt a chill come over him. He wasn’t sure if it was the words he chose or the way he chose to say them. Or perhaps it was the expression on the man’s face, so utterly firm, yet terribly calm, that was putting a scare in him. In any case, he knew enough not to ask more questions and simply nodded.
Gordon smiled again, pulled away. “Good evening, Mr. Caster. Enjoy your dinner. Beef Stroganoff, I suspect? Excellent choice.”
Gordon let himself out, the door swinging back into place and locking behind him. For several moments, Caster just stood there, eying the entrance foyer, feeling too chilled to move. His nose perked though, noting no smells that were discernible coming from this kitchenette. How the hell had Gordon known what he had selected for dinner?
When Caster did finally break free of his semi-paralytic state, he looked down at his hand. Though it looked perfectly normal, he knew that he would be making an appointment for a screening first thing in the morning. The last thing he wanted was another unexpected visit from Gordon or his kind…