Chapter 6:

Chapter 6


They stand in a single file line in the lighted hallway branching off from the sunny atrium. One by one they are sent behind a curtain at the end of the hall. No one has come back after entering. Like how no one has said a word after what happened to C4. Kids keep throwing wordless glances back at the garbage bin. It sits like a black stain against the white tiled wall. Smeared across their brains, a dirty, stinking memory that reeks of feces. SNS-404 patrols the line, drifting up and down the hall. It hasn’t uttered any further explanation or failed attempts at humor. It just keeps on pacing and signaling when the next person can pass through the curtain. Before Jun knows it, he’s at the front of the line.

SNS-404 bobs its head at him. “S3-N. You may now enter.”

Jun takes a slow step forward and reaches out to brush open the velvet barrier. He pauses, glancing back to see Ren gazing up at him in a silent plea not to be left alone. Jun feels just as helpless as his brother. With a heavy heart, he faces forward and passes through to the other side.

Underwhelmingly, the hallway on this side of the curtain looks about the same as the one Jun came from. The only difference is that several cubicles have been set up here. Dark shapes shift about inside each one like shadow puppets. A single AI, the same type as SNS-404, floats about but doesn’t acknowledge Jun’s presence. He notices that one of the cubicle’s doors is open. Supposing that one is for him, he advances towards it.

Whatever happens here will determine whether he lives or dies. Yet, there’s an inevitability to it. He lets the strange empty feeling carry him along. His feet move as if dragging through mud, but nonetheless deliver him towards the open door as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. He crosses the threshold of the cubicle, entering the promised place of judgment, a world beyond the current one and still within it. Not even needing instruction, he gently pulls the door closed behind him. A lock snaps into place, predictable and final.

A cool, feminine voice with an astonishing humanity to it sounds, “Please take a seat and follow the prompts on the tablet.”

Jun takes the offered chair at a desk facing a blank wall. The creak of plastic and the design of the chair is familiar. So is the desk. Jun is sure that if he runs his hand underneath it, he will feel the hardened lumps of gum and the carvings of initials. It could be his desk. He knows it isn’t, but he can’t shake the feeling that somehow, however improbable, it is. Pushing away thoughtless memories, he squeezes his eyes open and shut against all the voices of the past. There is no one in the cubicle except him, but he can feel the prickling of being watched. Evaluated. A slow, deep breath. Ren is waiting. Don’t leave him alone. He picks up the cold, hard tablet and begins.

There is no clock in the room and no time limit to the questions. In each singular moment an eternity passes and yet, the eternal stretch of testing is compressed into a single moment that flies by in the blink of an eye. Devoid of feeling, Jun answers each question thoughtfully. The emptiness of testing overtakes him as he is lost in the zone. Answer after answer, each one becoming increasingly meaningless than the previous, he continues. The tablet does not run out of power and he does not feel his energy drop. Together they are a machine, functioning smoothly and efficiently.

Finally, the voice interrupts, “You may stop there.”

The tablet goes dark and Jun sets it down carefully. Exhaustion slams into him like a speeding train, sending him slumping in the chair. The plastic is biting at him with its hardness and uncomfortable shape. Slowly, as if awakening from a dream, he becomes aware that his cold, clammy hands are shaking ever so slightly.

“Congratulations,” the voice flatly states. Its words drip with empty politeness. “Your evaluation is complete. Based on the biological analysis our processing team did when first tagging you and the examination you completed, we have compiled your results. S3-N, you were obviously well educated before coming here. Although, that is not to be unexpected from a member of Zone A. Your physical condition is acceptable. So far you have proven to be a cooperative individual capable of following instructions. As of now, your ideal lifespan is fifty-five. Please keep in mind that your number is subject to change due to the unpredictable factors regarding mental degeneration and any unsuspected physical incapacity. Repeated and regular analysis is required. You may now exit the testing room.” The lock clicks, shoeing him out.

Jun pushes back the tauntingly familiar chair and stumbles out the door in a cold sweat. Everything looks different now. The cloudy cubicles full of shadowy figures resemble souls drifting into the afterlife. The tiled hallway is a conveyor belt. The silent AI is a permanent fixture, establishing the system must not change. In his mind he can see beyond the curtain at the line of unnamed children about to suffer the same judgement as him. He can see the trash bin and the dead girl inside who was spared. The poster from ten years ago. How long has the same cycle been going on? He can see all the trains coming in and out of the station in the future and all the trains in the past. The faceless passengers unload and enter. Over and over. Again. Fifty-five. Such a number is incomprehensible to him, since he has never lived that long. Still, it feels wrong to live a life so short. Fifty-five is not long at all. Fifty-five. That means he’s already spent almost a fifth of his life. Almost a fifth of his life is already wasted. He slumps against an icy wall. It’s not fair, not fair at all.

The quiet AI buzzes at him. “Do not stop. Walk down to the end of this hall and make a right at the AI waving to you.”

Raising his head, Jun can see SNS-404 waving a rounded metal arm. In his dazed state, he had failed to notice the familiar sight waiting for him. He staggers over, each stride seemingly in slow motion. Panic scrambles around inside of him, but there’s nowhere to run. Except towards SNS-404. And so, he runs towards the AI, at least he can die willingly. An internal clock ticks down on his mind. He doesn’t know how much time Ren has left either.