If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy. But before we take up arms, we shall try the power of words.
–Yevgeny Zemyatin, WE, 1924
Rachel Wada rolled a sheet of paper into the Royal Arrow typewriter, pushed the carriage return lever to the right, and typed the date British style, Day Month Year, because she hated commas as much as she hated apostrophes.
Today is the big day. There were so many steps in getting here its hard to remember. Im glad Ive kept this journal going. I cant remember anything anymore. And with these typed pages I know the life Ive written about — my life — cannot be retconned by the Gray Team. It can only be burned.
She pushed the lever again and hammered the spacebar with her thumb five times, whack-whack-whack, whack whack, and began a new paragraph.
After work Im going to drive to Mockingbird Station. Ill park at the commuter lot and go past the ticket kiosk to the service elevator where someone will be waiting. Ill say “fallen flag” and take it down to sublevel 3. Then Ill follow the conduit to a door and wait.
She pushed the return lever again.
I know this could be a setup. I dont think it is but it could be. God what am I doing.
She looked at what she’d typed, flicked the release lever, and pulled the page free, setting it on top of the inch-high stack in the second desk drawer, page down. Then she set the remaining blank pages on top of the stack and pushed the drawer closed.
She was good with the typewriter, now. At first it had hurt her pinkies, and some of the special characters were in weird places, but now she understood it. Manually typing her thoughts was like carving them out of wood. She loved the experience. Typed thoughts were real. She could edit them, but it would be obvious that she had, so she quit doing that after the first week, and the experience forced her to think clearly and to commit.
Typing her thoughts was now part of her morning ritual, along with a cup of coffee, half a bagel, and Wordle. She enjoyed it. She needed it. And it gave her great pleasure to think, No one else will ever see these thoughts, not even the algorithm that just wants to sell me cheap Chinese crap on Amazon.
She put the cover back over the boxy 1950 manual typewriter. The typewriter cover was a fake gift box she had made last Happydays, a bottomless cube wrapped in sensible, earth-toned paper with an ethically harvested hemp bow, which barely covered the ancient steel machine inside. If anyone asked, she would say “It was the last gift from my mom. I’m just not ready to open it, yet.” And then there would be no more questions, and no one would touch it.
So far, the precautions had not been necessary. She had not had a guest over since the last pandemic. Still, she hoped, with her big adventure this evening, her life was about to change.
As she was about to push herself away from the desk, she frowned, pulled out her phone, and said, “Hey Siri, what is a fallen flag?”
“Okay, I’ve found this on the web for ‘What is a fallen flag?’ Check it out.”
The top result: A defunct railroad, having either merged or discontinued operations.
* * *
In an attempt to comfort herself, Rachel hummed the tune of Happiness is a Warm Gun as she approached the large steel door. She didn’t know where she’d learned it. She’d heard of the Beatles, but she’d only listened to their music when forced to, usually in some long line at a government building, and usually as Mu-zak, not mu-sic.
Before she could knock, a view port slid open with a bang. A faint light appeared inside, giving the man’s eyes a ghostly monochrome glow. His voice was as rough as a cement mixer.
“Name and belief.”
“My name is Rachel Wada, and I believe –”
“In writing,” he said.
The man growled and closed the view port. At the middle of the door, another port opened with a metallic creak, exposing a short steel shelf that Rachel hadn’t noticed. On it, the man slapped down a small, half used yellow pad, and a black Bic pen. Rachel took them. The port closed.
A man approached from the same direction Rachel had come.
“Yeah. They don’t want you saying it out here, ‘cause they don’t want any fighting.”
“People are fighting?”
The man scoffed. “Where you been?”
He pushed past Rachel. The viewport slid open, and he handed over a neatly folded piece of paper that he’d carried in his shirt pocket. The man took it and closed the viewport. A moment later, a bolt turned and the door opened a crack. A faint gray glow shone through. The man pushed the door open three feet and and went inside. Just before it closed, Rachel heard the man behind the door say, “Room 17, down the hall on your left.” There was a mechanical grinding sound, like an electric can opener.
She looked up at the camera to the right of the door, high in the corner. There were no lights indicating that it was on, but she was sure that it was.
She held the small yellow pad against the wall and wrote:
I believe that —————–.
(Redacted so as not to spoil the story till it’s finished. —RW)
She looked around. She was still alone. She tore the sheet off the pad, folded it in half, and the view port slid back open, more gently this time. She handed over the folded piece of paper and tried to slide the notepad through, but the man refused. The port closed, and the door opened a crack. She pushed.
Once inside, the man took the pad and pen from Rachel, tore several sheets off the top, and put them into a nearby shredder. It hummed and dumped the yellow slices into a bin.
Someone could read the imprint of what I’ve written, she thought.
“Room 12, down the hall on your right.”
Rachel nodded and tried to get a better look at the man she was facing, but in the dim gray light she could only make out that he was older, maybe in his 60s, and that his head and face were both completely clean-shaven. He might’ve been White or Black or Hispanic. He wasn’t Asian. Maybe he was Native American. Or Mixed. Lots of folks were Mixed, nowadays. Mixed people were best, score wise, though of course most of them were younger, like her.
Rachel could see now that the glow came from an old black and white security monitor on a nearby table. The hallways, which stretched to the left and to the right, had no light for their first ten feet. Doors were evenly spaced, and alternated on both sides of the hallway. The doors in the left hallway were odd, and the doors in the right hallway were even.
She stepped into the right hallway and looked for for Room 12, which from the pattern should be three doors down on his right-hand side. She became fully visible for the first time since descending those old, concrete steps: her dark brown hair and tortoise shell glasses glowed beneath the overhead light, though her fair skin and freckled cheeks were cast in shadow. She wore a stylish red V-neck blouse, untucked, and straight jeans.
She heard a voice on a walkie-talkie crackle from the direction she’d come from.
“We’re about to release Room 3.”
“Hold on a sec,” said the man at the door. He leaned back and looked at Rachel. She knocked on Room 12.
“Just go in,” said the doorman.
She opened the door, stepped inside, and let the door close behind her. She was in a transition room. There was another door 10 feet in front of her. The room had a camera in the upper right corner, and there were no windows. A single, naked light bulb burned overhead. She heard the door behind her click.
Though Rachel couldn’t hear it, the doorman said, “Clear.”
There was a buzz, and the outer door to Room 3 unlocked. A pleasantly chatting group of people filtered into the hallway.
The doorman glared at them, and their talk quieted to whispers.
Once outside the steel door, they spoke no more — not even so much as a kind glance — as they scattered. When they broke the surface, they all took on the faces of people who had never seen each other, faces that knew no one and saw nothing, faces that scanned clean and hinted little, though to the expert scanners at the Office of Digital Disinformation, the most subtle of clues could reveal everything.
Susan: Cool! Ready for more.
RW: Thanks! I’m convinced there’s something here. I’ll keep working at it.
Jonathan: First the peeve: at “Though Rachel couldn’t hear it…” you have a shift of perspective that’s jarring to me. Everything up to there was from Rachel’s viewpoint, and then… sudden shift I didn’t understand. How intentional was that?
But beside that, I like the setup, the elements are intriguing, and I’m interested in seeing where it’s going.
And thank you for the clue about “fallen flag,” I would have assumed incorrectly!
RW: Thanks — that’s insightful. So don’t shift to a narrator, just keep it a simple third person angle, with her as the main character. Got it.