Percy opened his eyes to the chirping of the holohead’s morning call. He had been awake a few seconds before he heard the sound but chose to lay with his eyelids fastened as he gripped onto the covers, savouring the last few moments before his schedule commenced.
“Percival, time to get up. The time is oh-seven-oh-oh, on the fifth of November.”
Remember, remember the fifth of November, a voice in the back of his head whispered to him. What it was he should remember, he had forgotten. He mustered some tension in his belly and lifted his torso to the lip of the bunk like a half-rusted mechanical doll destined for the scrap heap. The blank void of sleep bowed and withdrew as his eyes slowly adjusted to the white glare of his apartment.
The booth emanated a fanfare – trombones, whistles, and the faint sound of a screaming child. The technicians at the Bureau had orchestrated the jingle in one of their shiny, white laboratories, deeming it the ideal blend of sounds to stimulate the nervous system and rouse ninety-nine percent of humans.
The bunk was moulded into the wall and contained a single mattress with a grey coverlet. The holohead’s digitised pupils studied the human from its position in the booth as Percy dangled his stiffened legs over the edge and hauled himself to his feet. Once clear, the mattress’s grey cover snapped and recoiled into the wall. It churned and crunched until a freshly-pressed cover ejected from the recess, enveloping the mattress in a single motion ready for that evening’s sleep.
Already it was oh-seven-oh-one, and the jangling jackpot sound-effect filled the air. A trickle of liquid descended into a grey cup which had risen at just the right moment from a hole in the kitchen top beside him. Percy shuddered as he grasped the cup.
Having mastered the art of blocking his nostrils several decades prior, he sighed before gulping down the brew in a brief surrender of his gullet. It was a greyish-brown solution, somewhere between a liquid and a sludge. The Bees referred to it as tea. Just like the wake-up call, tea was manufactured in a separate lab of the Bureau and was best when drunk immediately, for the taste had the tendency to worsen if left longer than a single minute.
Percy’s legs began to tingle.
He wasn’t sure exactly how it worked, but he had overheard a colleague explain that the primary ingredients were chlorine, caffeine, and a form of synthetic protein. Percy had enquired what this meant exactly, but was advised to check with one of the sub-departments of the Bureau. This he did not do. Even despite his own standing at the Bureau, it was not wise to show a heightened curiosity for any topic – except, of course, humanity’s survival via the unwavering dedication to his own duty.
“Oh-seven-oh-two, Percival. You are twelve seconds below your average pace. Are you ill? Do you need a shot?”
Just below the holohead’s unblinking eyes and letterbox grin, a panel slid open from the booth and out shot a syringe dripping with a grey solution.
Percy shook his head violently, simultaneously jabbing the glands of his mouth with the tip of his tongue to wash away the lingering taste of the tea.
“I’m fine,” he sounded, and moved a foot in the direction of the booth.
The morning walk was one of Percy’s most despised courses of the day – a knee-quaking affair which caused every joint to tremor, and his nerves to sing a hot song.
But it was better than a shot.
He padded across the grey linoleum, enduring the shooting pains running into his collarbone. He wondered whether his feet were the only area of his body that sweated, but there was little opportunity to ponder over such things for long.
“Time for cleansing,” the holohead prompted.
The cleansing had occurred every day for the last twenty years, or perhaps it was twenty-five. Of course, they had methods of washing their bodies before that time, but lingering beneath a spout of warm water and using oily soaps was no longer conducive to human survival, according to the Bureau. It wasn’t precisely their decision to change; it was an initiative handed down from The Chamber – the elite cabal that held dominion over the city of Keep. They had existed longer than the Bureau, and Percy was vaguely sure that they pre-existed the city altogether, but his memory on such matters was always a little muddy.
The watchful holohead automatically adjusted to remain square on to Percy as he plodded past. A piston hissed, and the panel of the cleansing tube slid open. The floor-to-ceiling capsule, made entirely from transparent plastic, was just large enough to accommodate an adult. Percy frowned at the raised entrance to the tube, but the tea was kicking in and he found the strength to stumble over the threshold nevertheless.
“Oh-seven-oh-three, Percival. Cleansing initiated.”
Even inside the tube Percy could not escape the gaze of the morphing hologram hovering over the booth. It ruffled its pixels and music began to play – a jolly, trumpeting tune which brought to his mind a fuzzy image of a balding man chasing a woman endlessly around a tree trunk. The jingle would continue to play for another eighty seconds and Percy’s thoughts took refuge deep inside his body’s spasmed flesh until the process was concluded.
Nozzles on serpentine coils sprouted from the walls of the tube, little eyeballs floating around, scanning Percy’s naked body. They descended to his feet and began spewing their syrupy mixture. They swam about his legs, somehow remaining untangled, covering every inch of his skin with the transparent liquid. As they moved upwards, Percy held his arms out and the wide grin of the holohead loomed into view.
“Sixty seconds remaining,” it declared cheerfully, the green pixels of its face shimmering as the image rendered over and over.
The nozzles had reached Percy’s rear end. He had to clench tightly at this juncture, as the sensation of having a concentrated solution of cold, sticky liquid vomited directly onto buttocks is rather unpleasant. For what reason he could not fathom, the sensation on his front end was less unpleasant, but he always made sure never to betray a sense of pleasure from behind the taut muscles of his face, especially with the holohead’s piercing eyes looking into his own.
The trumpeting sounds continued, and the holohead began to bob along to the beat, deriving a sense of amusement that Percy was unable to share.
Despite his discomfort, Percy never resented the process, for it was a necessary evil. Tolerating a morning cleansing was far better than the alternative, which would be a slow and possibly painful death. If he had stepped outside of his apartment, having foregone the cleansing ritual, his demise would almost certainly be guaranteed. It required only an unfortunate encounter with another uncleansed human, whether it a droplet of spittle from a rogue tongue landing on an unsuspecting eyeball, or even the unconscious brushing of his exposed skin with that of another unclean individual. Both would all but spell the end. And that was the last thing he wanted. His work was far too important.
He closed his eyes as the frantic nodes spiralled about his face.
The fragility of human life astonished him. Whilst he was in the city, under the Threat’s menace, the only way for humans to survive was with vigilance, prudence, and a watchful eye over anyone foolish enough to abstain from such life-preserving rituals. People counted on him; the human race counted on him.
A hot band of tension coiled around his temple. The thought of not being at his workstation at exactly oh-eight-oh-oh was enough to make him squirm.
The booth beeped, and the trumpeting tune ceased. The nozzles recoiled into their slots, the dripping eyelets closed, and each antenna plugged seamlessly into the walls of the tube to hibernate until oh-seven-oh-three the following morning.
Percy’s bowels relaxed a little. He had to endure just a few more processes.
The holohead had already announced the next phase of his morning routine – not that he needed reminding – but at least it would only be a matter of minutes before he mounted his cycler and rode into work.
His belly growled.
“Oh-seven-oh-five, Percival. Time for consumption,” said the holohead, adhering to his schedule with military precision.
That was one thing Percy admired about the holohead; it didn’t matter whether he was running ten, or even twenty seconds behind schedule, it would always compensate to get him back on track.
Exactly thirteen minutes later, Percy was dressed and ready to leave. He stood in the middle of his alcove of an apartment relishing the moment he could climb into the bike’s frame, for it seemed to lessen his aches and pains. He kept his eyes fixed on the booth terminal – just below its unblinking eyes – watching the reflection of the holohead in every object in the room, for it was all made of tempered plastic – the cleansing tube, his bed, the booth…
And the cycler finally unclicked from the booth and pushed a few centimetres onto the track. Percy smiled.
The cyclers, also constructed from tempered plastic, served two functions. Primarily, they were used for transport, presenting the only viable mode of transport in Keep – except for the barbarians who persisted with walking. The second and most ingenious function of the cycler was supplying power to the city. When the bike’s pedals were rotating at a good rate, all surplus energy (which was roughly fifty-percent of the total input) was collected in a dynamo and directed along the tracks to the electrical generator in the very centre of Keep. If no pedal was turned, then not only would the rider remain motionless, but the entire city’s infrastructure would fail: lights, heating, booths, cleansing tubes – even the canon defences on the outer perimeters – all ran on the electricity provided by the cyclers. Thus, human survival depended on the unquestioningly consistent turn of the pedals. Even still, some didn’t appreciate the bikes; many regarded them as simply functional, and even banal elements of society.
But not Percy.
He admired their simplicity and the symbiotic nature of it all. They kept everyone going. The Bureau used them, the Bees used them, and even The Chamber used them during their rare public appearances.
He had forgotten the name of the man who had invented the cycler, but he knew deep down that the entire human species owed a great debt of gratitude to this visionary, as were it not for his inspirational contraption, there would be no way for Keep to function, and their ember of existence would be all but expunged.
Besides, humans were clearly designed to ride bikes. Whenever they rode in their semi-circular enclosures they were safely contained, with backs hunched comfortably inside the upper cradle, legs bumping reassuringly against chests, and necks jutting forward to observe the track.
The alternative was to walk on their own two legs, but Percy dreaded the moments he had to traipse from bike to booth, or from booth to bed. He was so estranged from the activity that even distances of only two or three metres caused him excruciating pain which only succeeded to cement in his mind how pathetically futile and ill-equipped a set of human legs were for propulsion.
Furthermore, if the tracks did not exist, then how would any human know where to go? It would be chaos. There had to be guidance, a straight line to follow, a clear objective, otherwise society would crumble, and all would perish to the Threat which lurked somewhere beyond the sky.
“Oh-seven-twenty, Percival. Time to go to work.”
The holohead hung in the air as Percy nestled into the familiar cocoon of the cycler.
A buzzer sounded, and the apartment door rumbled open. The whirring of cogs and the panting of breath rushed into Percy’s ears as a procession of workers on cyclers streamed past his front door. Beams of white light flooded into his pupils from the hardened thoroughfare beyond. With a sure expression, he pushed down on the pedals and the cycler glided down the apartment’s sloping entrance and latched onto the central cycletrack of the city – as he did so every morning at oh-seven-twenty.
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