Phiz ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Bewildering Stories.)
I’m not allowed any visitors. I said my goodbyes to my parents a week ago on my eighteenth birthday. My mother cried and my father was without emotion. They were told I was to be made one with the essence of the Nonpareil, which means I’ll be gassed and my body placed in a thick block of cement that will be used in one of the public works projects. Maybe someday the cement containing my body will crumble and my bones or whatever is left of me will again be exposed to the light of day.
I’m in a little room somewhere but I’m not sure where I am. I have nothing to do but wait for the end. A utility robot brings me food three times a day but I don’t eat much. Since I have no future, I try not to think about anything and try not to feel anything. I have a little window up high and I spend most of the daylight hours looking at the blue sky, at the tops of the trees off in the distance and at the birds flying from tree to tree. Occasionally I see an airship moving ponderously across the sky and wish I was on it. At night I love looking at the stars and sometimes I catch a glimpse of the moon.
How I came to be here is a long story. I was the only child of my parents and a disappointment to them. From the very first, I did not take well to the teachings of the Nonpareil. I was rebellious and moody and I refused to march in lock-step with other children my age. I was in constant trouble at school until my father was told to make some other arrangement for my education. I was placed in another school and then a succession of schools after that.
My parents were determined to find out what was wrong with me. They took me to a series of doctors who subjected me to every physical and psychological test known to man. After a period of time, the doctors found that I had no mental or physical impairments that would keep me from conforming the way I was supposed to conform. I was a healthy boy and there was no reason I couldn’t be like the other boys my age: a wholesome example of obedience and loyalty to the Nonpareil and all he espoused. There was no reason I wouldn’t live to pass on my seed of obedience to the next generation. The doctors advised more rigorous mind control and an aggressive drug regimen to be administered by the state.
My father knew that, in spite of everything that could be done to change me, I would never be what he wanted me to be. When I was ten years old, I overheard a conversation he had with my mother late at night in which he stated that he had given up on me and was ready to see me made one with the essence of the Nonpareil before I caused him further trouble and heartache. My mother pleaded with him and begged him to give me another chance. It was only after she threatened to leave him, disgracing him, that he agreed.
It was when I was fifteen years old that my rebellion took shape and developed a purpose. I was introduced at that time to one of the underground “secret societies” that detested mind control and conformity and advocated the overthrow of the Nonpareil and a return to a free and democratic society and form of government. The secret society was a place of free thought and free speech where the forbidden ways of the Old Time were revered. I knew finally what it was I had always longed for.
I discovered a whole new world in the secret society. I was made to feel welcome, for the first time in my life, with a group of people who thought as I thought. I was surprised at the many people of all ages and backgrounds who belonged. We studied the ways of the Old Time and longed for the day when we would be free. Many of us believed the overthrow of the Nonpareil was only an airy dream that would never happen, while others were sure the day of deliverance was close at hand.
Membership in the secret society was, of course, a serious offense to the Nonpareil and was strictly prohibited. Cells of secret societies were constantly being flushed out (many times from the tips of anonymous paid spies) and members gassed (or, made one with the essence of the Nonpareil). These events were always highly publicized to make examples of the members and to discourage other miscreants from wanting to join.
Over the years I had accumulated some books and texts on the ways of the Old Time. I had traded them with other members of the secret society and had in some cases bought them on the black market that operated on the fringes of the law. I kept them locked in a foot locker under my bed. When I was alone in my room at night, I would take them out and read them and study the pictures and dream about what life in the Old Time was like—and what life might someday be like again. My mother discovered these books—not by accident but by prying open the foot locker with a crowbar—and that’s when things went really bad for me. She informed my father that I was in possession of forbidden materials; he called the police and I was arrested that night. I was incarcerated in a correctional facility where I was forced to submit to electroshock therapy that was supposed to “reorder” my thinking.
I was kept locked in a tiny white cell (white was thought to be purifying and cleansing) for over a year. During that time, I saw only utility robots and had no contact with anyone. My mother was allowed to speak to me on the picture phone for a few minutes once a month, during which time she cried and attempted to get me to reform, to confess to all my wrongdoings and apologize for all the trouble I had caused. My father refused to expend further effort on my behalf.
During all this time, of course, no one had been able to “break me.” I remained true to what I had always been and that was the only thing I had. No matter what they did to me or in what way they threatened me, I was not going to change and become the boy they wanted me to be. Not now. Not ever.
After I still showed no signs of “improvement,” my father requested (he had the legal right to do so) that I be made one with the essence of the Nonpareil, and the court, after reviewing my case, complied with his request. So, I was brought here to wait for the end of my life. My parents were told I would be here for three or four days—a week at the most—but that I would be treated well and fed regularly (like an animal locked in a cage), no matter how long it took.
I’ve been here now for a week and two days. I have no calendar and no clock, but I’m still able to keep track of how many days have gone by. Not that it matters much. Every day I think will be my last. Every time I hear the door being opened, I think it will be them coming to get me. I’ve been told it will be easier for me if I don’t resist. When the time comes, I’m going to be cool and calm; I’m going to show them I don’t feel anything at all. They can kill me but they can’t hurt me. I’ve rehearsed it in my mind a thousand times.
On my ninth night in the little room—it must have been two in the morning—I woke up to the moonlight streaming through the window. I was surprised at how bright the moonlight was but I thought no more about it and turned over to go back to sleep. That’s when I realized it was not the moonlight that woke me up—but a sound—and someone was coming quietly into the room.
I propped myself on my elbows in the bed, thinking my time had come. I saw a dark figure coming toward me and when I started to get out of the bed he held up his hand.
“Don’t make a sound,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked sleepily. “Who are you?”
“Get out of the bed and put these on,” he said, handing me a small bundle of clothing.
I did as I was told and discovered that what he handed me was a black tunic, a pair of soft black trousers and a pair of black leather boots.
“What is this about?” I asked.
“Don’t ask questions,” he said. “Just do as I tell you if you want to live past tonight.”
After I was dressed, I could see his face better in the dim light. I had never seen him before.
“Who are you?” I asked again.
“It’s better if you don’t know who I am,” he said. “And anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m an interested party who knows what is about to happen to you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Tonight is your last night. They would have come for you in about an hour or so. I’m offering you a chance to escape if you just take it.”
“Why would you want me to escape? Who are you?”
“Be quiet and just listen to what I’m going to say.”
I sat down on the bed and laced the boots while he continued to stand.
“I’ve sent the two guards on a small errand that will take them five minutes or less,” he said. “That’s all the time you have to escape.”
“You’re letting me escape?” I asked.
“I’m going to walk away from this room without re-locking the door. One minute after I’ve left, you may go out the door and to your left down the hallway to a flight of stairs. Go down the stairs and at the bottom of the stairs go to your right down the long hallway. At the end of the hallway is a door. You may leave by that door.”
“Walk away from the building for about a quarter of a mile until you come to a gravel road. Turn left on that road and stay on it until you come to a paved road called the Hyphen Road. Start walking on it toward the east.”
“How do I know this is not a trick?”
“You don’t, but it’s your only chance. Stay on the Hyphen Road east for five miles, at which time you will see an airship docked at a small airfield. The airship will leave exactly at dawn and it won’t wait for you if you’re not there.”
“Why would anybody take me on board? An escaped miscreant?”
“Tell them your name is Lloyd David and that Mr. Thackeray sent you. Can you remember that?”
“Can you walk five miles without stopping?”
“I haven’t ever tried.”
He gave me an identification tag to show in case I was stopped along the way, and then, without speaking another word, he was gone.
I waited for what seemed a minute and then I went out the door and down the hallway to the left as he had said. I walked calmly—not fast and not slow—as if I belonged there. I went down the stairs and down the long hallway to the door at the end. In less than a minute I was outside the building, breathing in the night air.
I crouched down in the shadow of the building for a minute or two to make sure there was nobody around who might spot me, and then I began walking away from the building. I found the gravel road and stayed on it until I came to the paved road, the Hyphen Road, and began walking on it toward the east. I knew that five miles was a long way to walk without stopping, but I was moving forward almost without effort. My legs seemed almost to be working independently of my body.
I had to admit that it felt good to be someplace other than locked in a small room. The night, with its smells and sounds, was delightful. Only once did I encounter other people: I saw two men walking toward me—they apparently didn’t see me—and crouched down in the tall grass beside the road until they had passed.
I first saw the docked airship from about a half-mile away. It seemed enormous, like a huge sleeping animal. I felt my heart beat faster as I came closer to the airship. I was happy that the thing hadn’t left without me but also apprehensive with the feeling that anything might happen. I still believed my “escape” might be something other than what it appeared to be.
I was surprised to see no one around the airship, no workmen or crew preparing for flight. One lone man was standing at the bottom of the steps that went up into the airship. As I approached, I could see that he was a strikingly handsome boy a year or two older than me with pale skin and tousled brown hair. When he looked at me and smiled, I saw from his slightly luminous eyes that he was a robot. For a moment I couldn’t believe what I was seeing because he was by far the most lifelike robot I had ever seen, a welcome change from the utility ‘bots I had become accustomed to for the last couple of years.
“I’m Lloyd David,” I said. “Mr. Thackeray sent me.” My own voice sounded to me like somebody else’s voice.
He gave me a salute and stood aside and gestured for me to board the airship. I went up the ladder on shaky legs, with him right behind me, and when we were both inside he gestured for me to follow him. He took me down a small flight of stairs through a passageway and down a corridor to a door. He opened the door and stepped aside for me to enter and when I had gone inside he closed the door again and was gone.
I found myself in a small but comfortable cabin. There was a cot, a small table and two chairs and not much else. I could see through the one porthole in the cabin that it was starting to get light outside. I sat down and was taking off my boots when the robot opened the door again and came back into the room.
“We’ll be taking off in a few minutes,” he said.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Phiz,” he said.
“Where are we going?”
“It’s going to be a long flight, so just make yourself comfortable.” He closed the partition over the porthole, blocking out the light, and then he was gone again.
I lay down on the cot and fell into a deep sleep, during which I dreamt of the room I slept in at home when I was a child; the room was high up in the house where we lived and I used to pretend it was a cabin on an airship bound for exotic ports.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I awoke with a start. Phiz, the robot, was standing at the foot of the cot looking at me. He had a strange way of seeming to come alive when I looked at him; he was at other times, I suppose, in a dormant state to conserve his energy supply.
“Where are we?” I asked. “Have we landed?”
“Still airborne,” he said, raising the partition over the porthole.
“When will we land?”
“Not for a long time yet. Would you like some food?”
“Yes, and something to drink.”
He was gone no longer than five minutes and when he came back he was carrying a tray with a covered plate on it. When he put the tray on the table and removed the cover, I could see the plate held some kind of roasted fowl surrounded by vegetables. I sat down at the table and began eating. He left again and in a moment came back carrying a bottle of wine and a glass. He opened the bottle and poured the glass full and handed it to me. The wine was light and delicious, unlike any I had ever tasted before.
He sat down across from me at the little table. “Would you like me to sing to you while you eat?” he asked.
“I’d rather talk,” I said.
“Of course. What would you like to talk about?”
“Why haven’t I seen any other people on this airship since I came aboard?”
“You and I are the only ones here,” he said.
“Somebody has to be steering,” I said. “Somebody has to be navigating. The thing just doesn’t fly itself.”
“If you must know, I’m steering and I’m navigating.”
“Oh, I see. And who cooked this food?”
“You do everything?”
“I’d like to see the captain,” I said. “I want to know where we’re going.”
He looked at me as I stood up from the table and went out the door of the cabin. I had been in airships before and I knew where the control room was. I ran to the front of the airship and up a stairway to where I believed the captain and navigator would be. I opened a hatch and stepped into a large empty space. There were no steering device, no navigating instruments, and no crew.
I ran back to my cabin and looked out the porthole. I hoped to see a mountain, river, or city—some feature that might tell me where we were. Clouds were all I saw; we were in a thick cloudbank.
“I know all about you,” Phiz said, “from the day you were born.”
I turned and looked at him. “Who are you?” I asked.
“Don’t you know?”
“I’m the Nonpareil.”
I let out a little snort of laughter. “The Nonpareil is a robot named Phiz?” I asked.
“The Nonpareil is different things to different people.”
“I want you to turn this ship around and take me back to where we were.”
“That isn’t possible. We’ve passed through the portal. There’s no going back.”
“The portal from one plane of existence to another.”
I sat down heavily on the bed. “So this is what it’s like to be dead,” I said.
“Do you feel any less alive than you did?”
“I want to go back.”
“I just told you. You can’t go back. And, believe me, where you are now is better than where you were.”
“I’ll figure out how this thing operates and turn it around.”
“You would be wasting your time to even try.”
“I’ll open the door and jump out.”
“You would drift forever in purgatory. It’s a horrible existence.”
He sat down beside me on the bed. I could hear the slight whir coming from inside his chest, the robot equivalent of a heartbeat.
“I don’t want to be here,” I said, “with a robot. I’ll figure out a way to bring this thing down, even if it kills both of us.”
He smiled sympathetically. “You’re not making sense,” he said.
“Where are we going and when will we land?” I asked. “I want to know!”
He gripped the back of my neck gently in his hand and, in spite of myself, I leaned into him and put my head on his shoulder. If I had had a knife, I would have ripped his beautiful face apart and done him some real damage.
“This is what you always dreamed about, isn’t it?” he asked. “Just drifting among the clouds, without a care in the world?” He began making little cooing noises, which I found strange in a robot, and pretty soon I began feeling drowsy. The next time I woke up it was dark but I could see his luminous eyes looking right at me.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp