I was in the army in the latter years of the Twenty-Year War. When the war ended, I didn’t have anyplace to go, so I came to the Gottschalk Work Colony. I’ve been here now for five years. In a world that’s falling apart, where you might have to fight a mob to get enough food to eat to stay alive, Gottschalk takes care of you.
You work for Gottschalk and give him your loyalty and in return he gives you food, shelter, clothing and anything else you might need. If you get sick, he makes you well again. If you die, he feeds your body into the furnaces that power the huge turbines. Gottschalk is your family and your salvation. He is the one you worship and pray to, because he is the only one who can save you. So goes the official line.
We have a new worker named Roland. He is about forty years old and, unlike most of the other workers, he keeps himself clean-looking—no dirty fingernails and no stains on his clothes. Nobody knows anything about Roland or where he comes from. The unattached women are desperate to get him to notice them, but he seems to not even know they’re there.
Roland keeps to himself. In the time he’s been here, he hasn’t spoken more than a few words to me or, as far as I know, to anybody else. He does his work and when we’re not working he goes I know not where. If he has any family or any connections, he keeps them to himself. Nobody asks any questions. That’s the best way.
After a few weeks I begin to suspect that Roland is more than he appears to be. One time I see him talking to a strange man, obviously an outsider, on the perimeter of the compound. Another time he rips the sleeve of his shirt and I see a tattoo on his arm, which he obviously has taken pains to keep covered. On more than one occasion I see him surreptitiously scribbling notes on a piece of paper, which he then hides.
I want to know what Roland is about. It’s my duty as a faithful Gottschalk worker to find out what he’s doing and report it to the authorities. It seems there is much going on with him that needs to be uncovered for the good of Gottschalk and the good of everybody here.
One night when we have the usual break at ten o’clock to drink the anti-sleep drink, I see Roland sitting at a table with his back to the wall. He has finished his drink and his eyes are closed. When I sit down across from him, he opens his eyes and looks at me as if he’s never seen me before. He pushes away from the table as if he’s going to stand up and go back to work.
“Any ill effects from not sleeping?” I ask with a smile, trying to make my question sound casual and friendly.
“No,” he says. “I’ve taken to it all right.”
“Some people have trouble getting used to it. When I first stopped sleeping, I had blackouts and dizzy spells. A couple of visits to the doctor, though, and I was fine. It was all part of the adjustment process.”
“Why are we talking about this?” he asks.
“It’s my duty to report any abnormalities.”
He gives me a look that I can’t read and stands up and goes back to work. I can see he’s not one for small talk.
Since Gottschalk workers have stopped sleeping, Gottschalk is riding high. Productivity has doubled with the same number of people. Gottschalk is the envy of the other work colonies. The anti-sleep drink is Gottschalk’s most powerful tool, and he guards it with all his might. If the secret were to get out, he would lose his competitive advantage. He makes sure that isn’t going to happen.
I hear by the rumor mill of more people who have become sick. It seems there can be some ugly psychological effects from not sleeping—I’ve heard of two more suicides—but Gottschalk doesn’t want us to know about these cases. He keeps them quiet and doesn’t allow us to talk about them. Anyone who discusses them is accused of disloyalty or conspiring against Gottschalk. One has to be careful what one says because there are spies everywhere, not only people but microphones and cameras. Once a worker is suspected of wrongdoing, it is very difficult for him to clear his name.
One evening right before we partake of the anti-sleep drink, I go into the washroom and see Roland standing at the sink. His head is down and the water is running. He doesn’t hear me come up behind him. He has his sleeves rolled up and I get a clear view in the mirror of the tattoo on his arm that I had only glimpsed before. The tattoo is unmistakable: it’s the letter M inside a circle. When he realizes I’m there, he shuts off the water and rolls down his sleeve. He leaves the washroom without even looking at me.
I’ve seen the insignia of the letter M inside the circle before and I know it represents the Musgrove Work Colony. Now, I know that workers are never allowed to go from one work colony to another. Once you are pledged to Gottschalk or Musgrove or any other colony, you are essentially the chattel of that colony for as long as you live; there will be no switching to another colony. Gottschalk, I know from experience, would rather see you dead than to allow you to take his secrets away.
When our seventeen-hour shift ends at one a.m. and we are getting ready to leave, something makes me look over at Roland and I’m surprised to see he is looking back at me. He motions for me to come over to him; when I ignore him and turn my back on him, he comes to me.
“Could I have a word with you?” he asks.
“About what?” I say. “I’ve got some business to attend to.”
He insists on talking to me off the premises, so I take him to a quiet little café for workers not far from where I live. We sit in a booth in the back and order some drinks.
“What is this about?” I ask.
“You saw my tattoo today, didn’t you?” he asks.
“What of it?”
“I want to know if you’re going to talk or if you’re going to keep it to yourself.”
“I’m not a tattler. I don’t care what you do as long as it doesn’t involve me.”
“So we’ll keep it just between us then?”
“I knew from the first you weren’t what you pretended to be,” I say.
“Have you talked about it to anybody else?”
He surprises me by taking a cigarette out of his pocket and lighting it. I look toward the door and at my watch as if I’m itching to leave.
“I don’t know whether I can trust you or not,” he says with a little smile. “I might have to kill you.”
“Gottschalk wouldn’t like that. You see, I belong to him.”
“Wouldn’t you rather belong to yourself?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“I had a chance to look into your files,” he says. “You have a problem with authority, don’t you?”
“Isn’t this a rather risky conversation to be having? How do you know it’s not being recorded?”
“You’ve had fights with bosses and other workers and you’re known generally as a troublemaker.”
“I’m their favorite boy.”
“You want to get out of the work colony but you think you can’t.”
“I need to leave,” I say. I stand up and I don’t look back as I go out the door.
I avoid Roland for the next few days. A week later he asks to talk to me again after work, this time in his crib on the eighteenth floor of a building in the Keyhole District. I stand close to the glass wall and look down the dizzying one hundred and eighty feet to the ground.
“Do you ever think about jumping?” I ask him as comes up behind me and hands me a glass of beer.
“Never,” he says. “Then I would never know what comes next.”
“What does come next?” I ask.
I sit down and he throws a thick folder of papers in my lap.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“What’s a prospectus?”
“Take a look.”
I open the folder to the beginning. “I don’t want to read this junk,” I say. “How about if you just tell me what it is?”
“It’s a document for Gottschalk’s investors. It describes how Gottschalk, after conquering sleep, will move on to the next phase.”
“Cleansing your mind.”
“What does that mean?”
“Now that Gottschalk has cleared the way for you to work seventeen hours a day, he will achieve his ultimate goal of reordering your brain so that all your thoughts, memories and associations will be forever removed. He believes your work should be the only subject occupying your mind.”
“What are you saying?”
“All the workers at the Gottschalk Work Camp will be mindless automatons. All resistance will be removed. You will do the bidding of Gottschalk without your mind telling you to do otherwise. Since you don’t need to sleep, you will work twenty or more hours a day. The rest of the time he can shut you off like a piece of machinery and stand you in a corner if he chooses.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“It’s all there in the prospectus.”
“Words on paper.”
“They are experimenting right now with a group of twenty people. Two of the twenty died right away. The experiment is proceeding as planned with the other eighteen.”
“Is there nothing to be done?”
“Laws favor the corporate entity over the workers.”
“I was hoping you would lead the revolution.”
I laugh. “Me?” I say. “Why me?”
“Somebody has to do it.”
“Who are you, anyway?”
“I’m nobody. I’m not even here.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“You stood by passively while they took away sleep. Wouldn’t you fight to keep them from cleansing your mind?”
“All right, I want to know who you really are.”
“I’m from the Musgrove Work Camp.”
“I knew that when I saw the tattoo.”
“Musgrove is a fierce competitor of Gottschalk. I’m an investigator, trained to uncover the secrets of competitors. Musgrove put me at Gottschalk to find out all I can about the anti-sleep drug so he can copy it. I didn’t know about the rest of it, the mind cleansing, until after I had been there a few days.”
“What is the reason you’re tell me this?”
“I believe the workers should have a chance to resist while they are still able.”
“Yes, but why me?”
“I knew you were the one the first day I saw you. You’re not a sheep like the others. You still believe in the individual. You would break out and kill Gottschalk if only you had the chance.”
“Does it show on my face?”
“Only to me.”
“It’s true. Gottschalk is evil. I’ve always known that. I despise him.”
He tells me he’ll speak to me again in a few days when the time is right. In the meantime, he wants me to think about what he has said. I’m not to talk about it to anybody; I’m to wait for a sign about how and when we are to proceed.
When I leave Roland’s place, my head is spinning and I’m afraid. He seems sincere but suppose he is setting a trap for me? Shouldn’t I know better than to walk blindly into the trap? After all, I don’t know Roland; all I know is what he’s told me. Why should I believe him? I know I’m not capable of leading a revolution or anything else. I can barely lead myself to the toilet. I’m frightened out of my wits to think what Gottschalk would do to me if he even knew what Roland and I were talking about. How do I know somebody—maybe Roland himself—is not recording our conversations. How do I know anything?
During the next few days, Roland and I do our work and don’t speak again. Nothing passes between us, not even a look. It’s as if we are strangers.
On a day one week after the last time Roland and I spoke, I see he isn’t at work. Nor is he there the day after that. On the third day of his absence, I see one of the managers, the one named Leonhardt, walking past. I approach him and touch him on the sleeve. He stops and looks at me.
“Where is Roland?” I ask him.
“He’s gone,” Leonhardt says.
“Is he coming back? He owes me money.”
“Shut up and get back to work. It’s none of your business.”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“And you should know better than to lend money to somebody like that.”
At the end of the shift, when I’m exiting the building along with everybody else, I see four security police standing outside. As I try to make my way past the clot of people who have formed trying to get past them, one of the security police breaks loose from the others; he approaches me and tells me I’m being detained. When I ask him the reason, the other security police surround me.
They put me in the back of a vehicle without any windows and drive away. After a short time, the truck stops; the security police pull me out and take me inside a building and down several flights of stairs. When they throw me into a tiny, dark cell, I realize I’m bleeding from the head but I’m not sure how it happened. If they hit me with something, I didn’t know it.
Somebody comes and takes my clothes and shaves my head. When I ask why I’m being held, they don’t respond. It’s as if I’m already dead. They don’t hear a dead man speaking to them.
After they dress me in a kind of loose-fitting shroud, they throw me down on a cot and give me in an injection. The needle going into my arm is the last thing I’m aware of before everything goes black.
I go in and out of consciousness for I don’t know how long; maybe days or only hours. Once when I wake up, a man, obviously a doctor, is standing over me. A mask covers his nose and mouth but I see his eyes.
“What is this?” I ask, indicating a needle in my arm.
“You’re being prepared for surgery,” he says.
“What kind of surgery? I didn’t agree to any surgery.”
He gives a little laugh. “A special kind of surgery,” he says kindly, “one that will make you very calm and take away all the bad things you’ve been feeling.”
“I don’t want it!” I say. I struggle to get up but realize it’s useless; I’m restrained at the wrists and ankles.
Time is playing tricks on me; it seems like a lot of time but I don’t know how much. I don’t know if they’ve done the surgery on me yet or not. I don’t know anything. I still can’t move my arms or legs. There’s a tube in my arm. I hope to die to end this. I try to will myself to die.
I don’t know day from night. The room I’m in is so dark all the time; there are no windows. Once when I wake up I realize nobody is in the room except me. I still think I can free myself and get away if I can only figure out a way to do it. I drift back to sleep and awake with a start when I hear somebody come in. I close my eyes so they’ll think I’m asleep but when they shine a flashlight in my face, I open my eyes again. I’m surprised to see Roland looking down at me. Others are standing behind him, also looking at me, but I can’t see them very well.
“Who’s there?” I say stupidly.
“Don’t make a sound,” Roland says. “We’re going to get you free.”
They untie my arms and legs and take the needle out of my arm. Roland and another person pull me to a sitting position and give me a drink of water. Roland gives me some pills and tells me to take them. I don’t even ask what they are; I swallow them gratefully.
Roland tells me to stand and take a few steps to see if I can still walk. I do as he says and I start to feel better right away, just standing upright. He gives me a few more minutes to recover myself and then they pull the shroud off me and help me to dress in a black tunic, black trousers and boots. They have even brought me underwear and socks to put on.
When we go out of the room, I expect people to be there to try to stop us but there is no one. We run, as silently as we can, down a long corridor, and outside. We run in the dark to another building and enter. I’m not sure where we are but Roland and the others know. We go up several flights of stairs. By the time we get to where we’re going, I’m gasping for breath, still weak from being strapped down and drugged.
I realize there are as many as thirty men with Roland. They are all wearing black. Nobody says a word. I don’t recognize anybody. We come to a place where we all pick up a large can. There is a can for everybody, just waiting there for us. The can is so heavy I can barely lift it but I manage the best I can.
Even though the lights are off and we are guided only by the faint light from the windows, I realize we are in the part of the building where I have spent so many hours since I came to Gottschalk five years ago. The men start emptying the cans over the floor and every object, splashing as much on the walls as they can. I do the same with my can until it is empty.
When we have all emptied our cans and gathered at the top of the stairs, Roland lights the end of a stick with a cigarette lighter and hands it to me and asks if I want to be the one to throw it. Without thinking, I take the stick from him and throw it about twenty feet into the room. With an enormous whoosh the entire room ignites at once, or seems to, while we all run down the stairs and outside, fleeing for our lives.
We run about half a mile away and stop on a little hill and turn and face the building. The men, who were so silent before, are talking excitedly now and some of them are cheering. The fire, we can see, is spreading very fast throughout the building.
Roland is standing beside me. He claps me on the shoulder and laughs. “The revolution has started!” he says.
“Who are you?” I ask and he laughs again and hands me a cigarette and lights it for me with his lighter. I begin smoking it, even though I have never smoked before in my life.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp