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The Prisoner of South Chicago
"For what is man but a prisoner of his own fabricated reality?"
"We can never truly grow to the fullest potential of understanding, because we will eternally be trapped in the confines of human flesh and mind."
"What we perceive to be reality is only a figment of what we want to know but can never fully believe."
The Prisoner of South Chicago
A light flickered cautiously against the tattered wallpaper, illuminating thick layers of dust and residue that had long coated the insides of the moldy room. Cobwebs cast long, skeletal shadows on the plain white ceiling—which seemed bowed and cracked; hardly able to remain stretched over the four walls—and insects scurried frantically to avoid the offending glow as it pierced the damp and familiar darkness. Adam cupped a flashlight breathlessly in his hands, desperately trying to give off as little light as possible as he found his way from one side of the chamber to the other. The sole window was blacked out, but he could tell it was nighttime. He could hear the machines moving outside; a soft, metallic humming—a whirring of gears and circuits patrolling the streets of South Chicago.
The room had no furniture; a row of cardboard boxes sat stacked in the right corner, and a single, bare bulb hung down from the center of the ceiling on a wire. The floorboards were musty and old; they creaked whenever Adam shifted even slightly, and had no vents cut into them. It wasn't a particularly large space— about fifteen feet by fifteen feet, and unbelievably stuffy.
Adam had stayed inside of this room, hiding, for nearly two months. He hadn't spoken a single word since April 16th, 2047 (he'd been counting), nor had he seen sunlight, nor had he washed his face and hair, nor had he felt grass under his feet, nor had he walked more than a few paces at a time. For hours and days on end he did nothing but sit silently on the dirty, wooden floor; growing thin and frail and sunken and depressed; waiting. He ate little, drank little; slept little. No hopes sustained him—no thoughts humored him—he was simply an emaciated shell of a person, doubtful and mirthless; left to feel nothing but the emptiness of being painfully alone.
It was thus that he weathered the brutal siege; a siege he was sure that the machines didn’t even know they were carrying out—silently, in the dark, so accustomed to being on edge that he simply felt worn and heavy. Adam knew that the machines could outlast him. But it was a cold reality; and he buried it in his mind and concentrated only on staying alive.
He cautiously tiptoed to the stack of boxes in the far corner of the room, avoiding the places where the floorboards moaned the most and choking the flashlight down as much as he could. Four empty boxes sat on top of the rest, and he delicately put them aside. He now carefully pried open the lid of the fifth box with his slender fingers, and scoured the contents discontentedly: army rations—preserved spam, powdered vegetables, vitamin and mineral capsules, and bottled water.
Each box was about three times larger than Adam's head, and carried the equivalent of fifteen days worth of food, if one apportioned the contents correctly. Adam ripped open the packet of Spam and swallowed it in a single gulp, pouring the vegetable powder into the bottled water and dissolving the pills into the murky liquid.
His unsavory meal finished, he closed the box and paced back across the room, again with the flashlight, to stand by the painted-over window. It was raining outside; he could hear the sharp crackle of water on concrete underneath the whirring of the machines.
Adam closed his eyes and sank down against the wall, under the window. He knew not what time it was; nor how much sleep he had gotten the night before—although it didn’t matter; he was always exhausted…
The boxes of food were all Adam could remember eating; he knew he had seen steak, and potatoes; yet he couldn’t quite recall the taste of either. In fact, much of his past seemed fuzzy. When he really thought about it, he couldn’t remember any of his childhood—the color of his old house, the shape of his mother’s face, the halls of his high school; it all seemed…missing. All he could recall was the damp, musky, cramped room; yet he was placated so fully by the very fact that there must have been something, some life, that existed before the room that he didn’t like to sit around worrying about what it might have been like. Whatever it was, at least it wasn’t this.
He tried to think of his mother, but he couldn’t. He had one, he was sure of it; but what did she cook? What did she wear? He put his hands to his head and rubbed his temples. Concentrating. He had an image in his head, but it was generic, vague— character-like. He saw a woman with a paisley apron, who wore oven mitts like gloves and kept her hair cemented into a tight bun. This wasn’t his mother. It couldn’t be his mother. So who was?
He bared his teeth and waited for the image to disappear. Maybe if he concentrated on—no! He couldn’t let his thoughts slip to the past; that would only serve to frustrate him. And though he had plenty of time to waste, he didn’t want to waste it frustrated.
He drifted off to sleep, thinking only of the damp smell of the room, and how it wondrously reminded him of nothing but the present.
* * * *
Adam never differentiated between days. Nothing existed to set them apart, so why bother?
He often entertained the idea that captivity was driving him crazy, though he knew that he exhibited none of the symptoms of confinement-induced insanity. He didn’t invent people to talk to; he just sat around and drew figures in the dust. He never thought about killing anyone, or anything, he just thought about keeping himself alive for as long as possible. Adam had, he believed, adapted himself to siege life—in the sense that he honestly didn’t notice that he was trapped anymore. His horizons, which had once stretched beyond the last hazy peaks of Chicago’s skyscrapers, now sat opposite each other on each wall. His universe had shrunk; and the room, now, seemed vast. Relativity had played a cruel trick on the prisoner’s brain and turned the once tiny chamber into his entire world.
What if he were crazy? No one was there to tell him otherwise. He would just be crazy by himself; and so, technically, not crazy at all, he supposed. You’re only crazy if other people think you’re crazy, right? If no one is around to compare yourself to, then you’d be completely normal, and everybody else in the world by comparison would be crazy. Adam was the only sane one out of everyone left in the world. He had to be. How would it be any other way? It couldn’t. Could it? No, it couldn’t—there’s no way.
A cracking bang of a noise interrupted Adam’s thoughts. It was day X out of XXXX days. He instinctively jerked into a standing position, fists clenched and ears attentive. The sharp sound echoed again from beyond the anterior wall, sending an extraordinary shudder from the top of his head into his already uneasy gut. He stood stock still for a moment or two, listening for the sound to come again. Could it be? No— impossible. Fear crept slowly and cruelly under his flesh. Breathless, heartbeats wracking his adrenaline charged body, he inched towards the door. It took several seconds to effectively and silently maneuver across the room—and he tried to pacify himself as he slowly put his ear against the peeling, wooden surface.
No noise—just an eerie sort of silence. He wanted to hear, yet he didn’t; he wanted to assure himself that it wasn’t what it could be, but he was too afraid that discovering more would do nothing to allay his gnawing fear. All he could think about was that metallic humming; that horribly smooth, monotonous buzz that, for two months, had constantly filtered into his refuge from the other side of the blacked-out window. He felt like he needed to vomit; pearly beads of sweat formed thickly on his brow and dripped from his face, spattering onto the musty floor.
He bit his tongue to keep from whimpering. And the sound came again.
It was a woody snap; a resonating crack of wood on wood. A door closing? Was there another hiding himself away nearby?
Adam desperately tried to relax as the noise faded into nothing. He could almost hear the dreaded humming as he stood stiffly against the door, his gasping breaths punctuating the still silence and his sweat dripping down the soft wood. He laughed nervously and held his breath to steady the wracking heartbeats, allowing the entirety of his weight to fall on the door. He could taste blood; in his frenzy to remain absolutely still he had nearly chewed through his entire tongue with merciless abandon. Adam had scared himself far too badly, now he just needed to focus on something else and the hum in his head would go away.
It had been nothing. Just…nothing.
He counted to ten and drummed a beat against his thigh, but oddly enough, the hum only seemed to get louder. Tapping his feet on the floor, he waited for his mind to give it up. But it was getting worse; he was driving himself crazy. Suddenly, pain flooded back into his stomach as his nerves surged. He shuddered inexorably. He slowly brought his hands to his head, and clamped them over his ears. The sound grew quieter. His knees liquefied. He pulled his hands away, and the hum returned, louder than before. Adam wasn’t crazy—the hum was there; dull, evil, horrid, mechanical—and it was inches away from the outside of the door.
* * * *
Adam jumped back and lost balance, crashing with a mighty thud to the floor. He winced in pain, but ignored it; and scrambled to his feet frantically. He had been discovered. The horrid knot in his stomach gave way to instinctive adrenaline—his legs calmed themselves and his hands became steady—he was preparing to fight; to stay alive. He had been discovered. They knew. A slamming noise, much like the snap he had heard seconds before, wracked the door; and it bowed slightly. Another sharp thud and the door split; a vertical crack splintering itself from the top to the bottom. The humming grew louder and louder. A third blow blasted the weak piece of wood clean off its hinges, and for what he thought was the first time, Adam found himself staring directly at a machine.
Its top half seemed to be made of grey-blue steel, and it vaguely resembled a human torso covered in odd lights and apparatuses. It had an armored shell; a nearly seamless network of burnished blue-grey steel plates that were at least three inches thick each. Long, angular arms protruded from beneath the plates; each sporting a pair of polished titanium pincers. The entire frame tapered into a dull point at about waist level, and in place of legs sat a large, glowing dome that emitted a constant hum and seemed to allow the thing to hover three or four feet above the ground.
The machine stared at him with cold, mechanical eyes. Its titanium pincers grated together warningly, and it advanced the human equivalent of a single pace towards Adam; its movement smooth and fluid despite its rigid structure. Adam backed towards the pile of boxes slowly; he didn't know what he was going to do when he got there, but he had to move. The machine was floating closer and closer, all the while analyzing his very blink pattern with computerized efficiency, waiting for the opportunity to strike.
It hummed and hovered, just over the threshold; lights flashing on and off as it processed and calculated. Adam knew he had no weapons to defend himself; neither his mind nor his fists could best the emotionless metal machine.
For a second or two, man and machine analyzed each other in the near-silence.
Machines have no morals, no questions, no answers, no desires; they are colder than the steel that makes them. While men strive to understand the workings of the world they live in, machines have an unbiased indifference—yet know how to bend the lines of reality when necessary. For things that seem impossible to us are only so because we perceive them to be that way—to a machine, nothing is impossible; doubt and reserve are two entirely incomputable concepts; too many variables exist.
Five seconds passed.
Adam clenched his fists and planted his feet firmly on the floor.
Suddenly, the window behind Adam exploded, sending blackened shards of glass ripping through the fusty air. A short, intense gust seethed through the gaping hole in the wall, toppling the cardboard boxes and flattening Adam’s shirt against his back. The machine hovered motionlessly, as if completely unaffected.
A brilliant light then flooded the room as the gale came to a sudden halt, bathing all four musky corners in a dazzling white glow. It was sharp; manufactured; certainly not sunlight. Adam squinted until his lids were almost completely shut; he had been without true light for so long that this, whatever it was, was absolutely blinding. He pressed his hands against his face, trying to shield his perilously sensitive eyes and maintain a visual on the machine at the same time.
The machine remained still.
The light increased in intensity, scouring Adam’s defenseless corneas and forcing him to close his eyes completely; though when he did, it didn’t help any. The light was growing brighter and brighter, each passing second rendering it a more brilliant shade of white. It was so glaring he couldn’t stand it, he tried to close his eyes tighter but it made no difference, and he convulsed as pain rocketed behind his eyelashes. Tears spilled down his face, and he could feel a burning; a searing—his retinas were cooking, his pupils expanding to the bursting point—and he screamed in agony and clawed helplessly at his face as it hurt him and hurt him and tore his eyes to pieces; pouring hot acid into the raw, inflamed sockets and boiling the liquid that flowed irrepressibly from his tear ducts. Adam clawed at his face until he could feel hot blood oozing out from under his fingers, spilling down his cheeks and neck; yelling as his tears only brought him more and more pain.
And then, without warning, the light was extinguished. The room was enveloped in shadow. The darkness that Adam had come to thrive in was suddenly unfamiliar to him; he could see nothing—the walls of the room disappeared, as did the machine. His stomach tightened. He was blind—but he could still hear the humming, rattling his flesh loose from the bone.
A few seconds passed that felt like the entire past two months, and Adam, shaking violently in the aftershock of the intense pain, was sure that he would pass out as he anticipated the machine’s next move. He waited in vain for the darkness to recede, for his eyes to readjust to the newfound night.
He feared that they could not.
He started crying; he didn’t know why he was in this room, why these machines were here, why any of this was happening. He didn’t know who he was or what his life had been like before or what was going to happen to him. Every thought he had tried so carefully to avoid before rushed to his mind, and he collapsed in a heap on the dusty floor; weeping in the agony of knowing that he was, undoubtedly, truly alone. He had always been; his mind had just refused to ever let him know it. He had always been. He had always been.
He rocked back and forth on the floor, cradling his bloody face in his hands and grinding his teeth together. How long had he been in the tiny room? Was it really two months? How did he know of nothing but it and the machines? Adam didn’t even know what he looked like. He pulled at his hair with his fingers and moaned into the darkness.
“Stand him up,” sounded a cold, female voice from somewhere high above him. Her words were passionless, icy. They echoed down and thundered around the walls of the room.
Adam felt titanium pincers grip both of his arms near the shoulder, jerking him into a weak standing position. He rubbed his eyes hopelessly, and his head flopped listlessly to the side. He didn’t have the strength to lift it again.
“Administer the serum,” came the voice again, grating and unfeeling.
Adam tried halfheartedly to flail his arms; to escape—but the machine had him in too firm a hold. He gave up, and let is arms and legs go limp.
He felt a sharp prick in the side of his neck.
The world came flooding back to him; his eyes blasted opened again, yet something had changed. There was no room, no machine, no busted out window—everything was brilliant and white and crystalline. He could see a face; a woman’s, gazing down from somewhere high above him. Looking around, he realized that he was naked, and clean; and that his face was had stopped bleeding.
The light was no longer artificial—it now seemed to be sunlight—and grass began to grow under his toes, where the floorboards had been before. Adam absorbed this strange new place, and turned his gaze to the face in the sky, his eyes opened wide.
Something came to him, a figment of some past, something; hands, feet, a twisting ream of legs and tongue, eyes of every color, wings—and he began to see…to really see.
And then, unstoppably, just as quickly as it had come, the universe went completely and utterly black. Adam succumbed to total darkness for the last time. There was nothing. Just…nothing.