Three wars off-world. Medals for bravery, honor, and courage under fire. A year in a military hospital on the moon. And now? Now he was forced to police civilians on this dust bowl.
Colonel Atkins splashed water on his face. The cold water washed away the tattered remnants of a nightmare full of doctors, needles, and blades. Black bags hung heavy beneath his eyes as a reminder of his injuries, and the side effects of modern medicine.
The puckered scar of an old wound grimaced back at him. He felt the edges of the wound, inflicted from a spray of bullets that nearly ended his life.
Engines roared outside, the sound shaking the foundation of his basement studio. He finished drying his face as he stared up through the cracked gutter window into a ring of blue sky. A trail of black smoke penetrated the temporary reprieve from the constant barrage of mud and dust.
“Enjoy it while you got it,” his voice was low, guttural.
By the time he had crossed town to the Skrill the skies had closed up again. A brown-black wall of dust enveloped the city. The humidity from an overabundance of sweat and pollution congealed the storm into a drizzle of soot and grime.
Inside at last, Atkins took out his handkerchief only to find the raining filth had soaked it, rendering it useless. He preferred his work in the street, so his desk was useless as well, except that he kept spare handkerchiefs and facemasks.
“Atkins!” his commander’s voice was thundered over the tiny silver intercom next to his computer. “The shrink’s saying you’re late.”
Every damn week. Five long years.
“Then that pasty freak can kiss my ass. I’m busy.”
“My office,” the speaker cracked. “Now.”
The door was unlocked. Atkins was all too familiar with the small metal room and the small metal desk behind which a much larger man huddled. If he had a sense of humor he’d laugh, but since the only sense he had was ire he simply smirked. This didn’t please Commander Platt in the least.
“Four years, and the order is simple. You have weekly appointments with a vetted shrink. Damnit, put that cigarette out!”
“Or what?” he exhaled. One breath was all it took to cloud the little room.
Platt tore the cigarette out of his mouth, smashing it out on a yellow sticky note, and promptly tossed it in the trashcan.
“Let’s reflect on how this goes every Wednesday,” he stood up, matching Atkins’ height. “I’m going to say go. You’re going to say no. I remind you the high-ups handed this order to me the moment they banished you here. You say you’ve seen the shrink too many years and you’re fed up. And then I say—”
“You say cooperating is the best chance I got to get on one of those ships heading off-world,” Atkins interrupted with the same argument that he suddenly realize they had every week. Déjà vu.
The commander calmed down. His usual gruff voice softened.
“Atkins, it is only an hour. Then you can be a good little soldier and do something useful out there.”
It was true. He hated the pasty little freak. Doctor Shelly was a thin little man who hadn’t seen a day of combat in his life. For an hour each week they’d sit across from one another, and he’d share what he dreamt or what he felt and Shelly would tap the edge of his spectacles as if in thought, his beard twitching every so often like the whiskers of a sickly cat.
What bugged him most was his attire. The man was immaculate. He wore blue striped shirts and cotton pants held up by brown suspenders. Never once did he ever observe a spec of filth on the doctor from the perpetual storms. Either the man lived in the Skrill or he had a secret way to travel outside of headquarters.
Personality-wise, Shelley was calm and collected. That was why his nervous, twitchy habits were off-putting during today’s session.
“Colonel… A-Atkins is it?” he stammered, clearing his throat. He coughed a few times trying to unearth an object was firmly wedged in his esophagus.
“The same Atkins you see every week, doc,” he said, and reached into his pocket for another cigarette.
“Yes, so it would seem,” he mused, and pulled the cigarette out of Atkins’ hand. If it happened again he was going to punch somebody.
For several minutes they sat across from each other. The normally chatty doctor was as silent as a grave.
“This is normally when you ask me questions,” he said, trying to break the doctor out of his thought. “So ask.”
“This is normally when you share something about yourself,” the doctor replied. “Have you noticed anything strange lately?”
“I don’t know. Things out of the ordinary.”
Atkins shrugged. “Blue sky today, before the storm came in. Not an ordinary occurrence.”
“Was it familiar?”
“It looked like blue sky. I’ve seen it before.”
Shelley hastily scribbled in his notepad with a golf pencil. Why did they still call it a golf pencil when nobody played golf? Normally they recorded the sessions. The small silver recording device was nowhere to be seen.
“Have you heard the same conversations over and over?”
“No,” he answered, then shook his head. “Sure. Me and Platt always have the same damn argument before I come in here each week. Same exact argument, and I give in and I end up being your guinea pig for an hour. Annoying if you ask me.”
Shelley tilted his face down, staring at Atkins from above his glasses. “The same argument? Every time?”
“Listen doc. I don’t like being here, and honestly after being in three wars I don’t make out well sitting in one place for too long. I’m leaving.”
“Before you leave, Colonel, tell me. How old are you?”
Atkins stopped for a moment, confused. It was easy to figure out how old you were. You needed to do the math and…
“Ain’t that in your file?”
“How old are you?”
He thought for a moment and answered, “Twenty-nine. Thirty-one?”
“Little young for a colonel, isn’t it?”
“What are you getting at doc?” he was suddenly defensive. “I proved myself. Three bloody wars.”
“Yes, but what were these three different wars you are talking about? Tell me what kind of man gets into three wars in ten years. What wars?”
These were pointless questions becoming more pointless. There were gunshots. There were bullet wounds. He was the only one to survive the ambush on the third moon of Icarus. The screaming. The year in the hospital. Eating rats in the foxholes.
“What does that matter? There’s wars all over off-world.”
The doctor pressed on, “Who with?”
All of that pain and misery, and he couldn’t even recall who he had been fighting all those years. He scratched the back of his head as he stared out the window with those small black eyes behind the dark black circles.
Shelley pushed his glasses back up on his nose.
“Colonel, I might know how to help you.”
“Why can’t I remember who I was fighting?”
Shelley was scribbling in his notebook again. He tore out a page and handed it to him. He gently squeezed his shoulder.
“As I’ve tried telling you before, you are suffering from an acute case of PTSD. Relaxation is key, with of course some minor prescriptions. I believe in Under Town you should sample this tea.”
Tea? He wanted to get his memory back. Not that it was gone, it was full of holes and he never realized it. Thanks for the revelation, Doc.
Under Town was what it sounded like. It was the city beneath the city. Earthquakes, the swansong of a dying world, had leveled sections of the city decades ago. In response, the survivors rebuilt the city on top of the old bones, leaving sections like this as dirty shelters. Over time Under Town was born, the ant hill of humanity.
It had its advantages. The mud storms didn’t rain down on you. That was a big plus, but scarcely outweighed the drawbacks of Under Town. Higher crime. More pollution. Eternal darkness.
As Atkins wandered through the mazelike ruin the lights flickered. He paused for a moment, his eye focused on a gang of kids at the other side of the corridor. It was when the lights went out that you didn’t know what hit you. His hand tightened on his service pistol. Nobody was stupid enough to assault a law enforcer, but he was in plain clothes.
The lights flickered once more, growing dimmer and dimmer until one above his head popped. The rest of the corridor was brightly lit again. The kids were laughing at how he jumped.
Three levels below, he stood in front of a plain red and orange sign for Sleepy Time Teas. Sure enough, that’s what the doc wrote. Why this place?
Who was my mother? He asked himself. Mary Atkins.
Who was my father? Major Benjamin Atkins.
Where I was first stationed after boot?
The name was on the tip of his tongue, and disappearing fast. He opened his mouth thinking a mock pronunciation would save it from oblivion.
He closed his mouth.
“Medal of honor for saving a platoon from enemy bombardment in Helios III,” he muttered. “Silver Cross for courage under enemy fire. Wounded. Spent one year in bed under the knife for seven surgeries.”
But for the life of him he couldn’t remember what battle he had been wounded in, who he had been fighting, and what the specifics were of the surgeries.
The bell above the door jingled as he entered. The tiny room was heavy with the aroma of tea leaves, and humid with water vapor. A pot whistled as he approached the desk. A long-limbed man with long dirty hair reached over from his magazine and move the stout white kettle to a cold burner.
“Didja come here for something?” he asked, wiping at a dark smudge on his nose, only to spread it across his face.
He stopped when Atkins dropped the prescription in front of him. The man coughed and studied it for a moment.
“Red flower and lavender. Chicory, huh,” he looked up at Atkins. “The doc’s good man, ain’t he?”
“If you say so. You really make tea out of this stuff?”
He chuckled, shaking his head, “I would if I could. No such thing as chicory anymore. Never had it in my life. Extinct for thirty-five years at least. The doc has something else in mind.”
Convinced Shelley had set a trap for him, his hand tightened on his pistol. The man pushed a strand of dirty hair out of his face, eyes resting on Atkins’ hip.
“Memory loss, ain’t it?”
His grip relaxed.
“How’s that any of your goddam business?”
“It’s true, ain’t it?”
“I was laid up for a year,” he growled. “It was the drugs. Anesthesia side effects, most like. Maybe even bad tea.”
The man reached over to the steaming kettle, nodding with his response. He refreshed his mug with fresh brew.
“Aye, it was drugs, but it weren’t anesthesia.” He sat there for a moment blowing over the top of his tea to cool it. “If you leave the heater, I’ve got what you need.”
Still can’t remember my childhood. Can’t remember my mother’s maiden name. What was my third medal awarded to me for?
He needed answers. He didn’t need a gun.
The chamber in the back of the tea house was large enough for a basketball game. A chair was raised in the center of it like the grinning assistant of a mad dentist. The cushions where in tatters, falling off of the seat like rotten meat.
The man skipped ahead and pulled the mechanical arm from the ceiling above, positioning it close to the chair. He loosened the straps on the arm rests.
“You expect me to sit in that thing?”
“Yep,” he said, “And you will.”
“Bull crap,” Atkins cursed. “Why would I do that? You strap me down and there’s no telling what you’re going to do to me.”
The man turned, leaning against the chair. He brushed his long dirty hair out of his face. One hot breath blew his bangs drifting through the air.
“What’s your mother’s maiden name?”
“What does that—”
“Earliest childhood memory? How old were you when you first realized you liked girls?”
Atkins shook his head. They were all on the tip of his tongue, but quickly evaporated. He cupped his temple as if it would keep these ethereal memories from escaping.
“You and me? They mess with our minds. See that over there?”
He looked to the end of the room. There were crimson vials lined up on a shelf. Unlabeled.
“Those there, pal, is what they use to program us.”
“The Enforcers,” he said as if it were obvious.
“I’m an enforcer, and you’re chock full of bull shit. I should arrest you.”
The man flailed about flamboyantly with his long gangly arms as he explained further.
“And that’s the crux of it! They reprogram us, and they reprogram themselves. There’s an entire operation out there, man and you… we are blind to it. This here,” he slapped the chair. “Is loaded up with a little concoction I developed to wash us of this mind juice.”
Every week at the psyche office they administered drugs to him for his condition. But today they didn’t give him a dose.
“Alright you little roach,” he said. “Why should I believe this?”
“Because Doctor Shelley met you for the first time today,” he spoke quickly so he couldn’t be refuted. “The doc’s note said that, a code of sorts between us. Tell me, what was the best meal you had last week?”
Atkins was feeling lonely in this room. Abandoned in a maze. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t remember meals much.”
“You live in an apartment?”
“What does your landlord look like?”
“Military foots the bill.”
“Your neighbors. Male or female or both?”
“Both,” he said cautiously. “I suppose. I think.”
He patted the chair invitingly. “You need what’s in this chair if you are going to remember your true memories. Please, trust me.”
The straps were tight on his wrists. His knee ached, but was buckled down. A mouth guard was removed from its plastic wrapper and fit tight in his mouth, depressing his tongue.
“The man out there controlling us can’t program everything in us, as you are now aware. But for the holes he makes us accepting little sheep. We usually don’t care. But you and me? You and Doctor Shelley? We make you question enough to realize you got a problem.”
He toggled a couple switches on the other side of the mechanical arm. A mask was on the end to cover he eyes. He pushed it against Atkins’ face.
“The first step, man, is always to realize you got a problem.”
With that, he kicked a pedal below the chair and pulled a long cord out of it like he was starting a lawnmower. The lights dimmed. A couple popped as he eagerly watched the green monitor.
The chair shuddered and his cup of tea danced off of the edge, shattering on the floor. His eyes widened, realizing his mistake.
The machine had never been built for a case this severe. Most people he had helped had at most three levels of memories implanted in them. God knows why that amount was even necessary, even for Big Brother to control a single person. He watched as Atkins’ layers of memories were analyzed, evaluated, and climbing to a dozen. Two dozen. Three dozen.
The machine seized. Several screws fell out of it, clattering across the floor. When the mechanical arm was removed Atkins saw a dozen enforcers had seized the room, his brothers at arms.
Commander Platt was leaning over him, slapping his cheeks.
“Wake up, Colonel. Wake up.”
The world was washed away. He felt like he could see the blank canvas behind the painting.
“What’s going on?”
The world was an aquarium. He felt like puking. It spun about him, the chair his rollercoaster.
“You. You’re what’s going on. You found this illegal device, and we came in when you called for reinforcements.”
“Who… I never called for reinforcements,” he said weakly. New memories, real or fake, began rolling through his mind. “I was programmed to remember lies.”
“Now, now. Breathe Colonel. That’s the side effects of the machine talking.”
Memories of being cut open on the table. They turn up the anesthesia. The only wounds he has are those inflicted upon him by the medical staff, and his jailers.
“Then why don’t you untie me?”
Commander Platt smiled like cats do with canaries.
“I’ve already made the call. You were compromised. Processing will be here any minute now.”
“Why were you experimenting on me?” he struggled against the straps.
It was years. Years he was in the hospital. Imprisoned and experimented on. Drugged.
“Because everyone wants to live forever, Atkins,” his commander spoke as if he were educating a child. “You should have died on Helios III, and you didn’t. I’m not sure if it were God or the Devil who kept you alive but those wounds would bury a normal man.”
The bolt holding his wrist strap snapped. He snatched Platt’s gun out of his holster and held it on his commanding officer.
“I’m nobody’s guinea pig!”
“Think of what you’re doing,” Platt spat back at him, eyes fierce. The rifles of a dozen officers were cocked and trained on him. Fingers were firmly on the trigger, ready to shoot. “You shoot me, and they’ll shoot, and you’ll live.”
“That’s some fantasy world you live in.”
“Think about it!”
Years of surgeries. A gunshot. He falls. Another shot. He falls. A thousand memories of explosions and gunfire and him falling. Doctors. More doctors.
“Those memories coming back are your memories. We programmed you so you wouldn’t remember the surgeries. We programmed you so you could work the drugs out of your system.”
Atkins glanced at the small mirror to the side. Those black bags under his eyes. They were from years of drugs and side effects. Nobody else in the force had those black bags under their eyes.
He looked from face to face. Not a single enforcer had those black bags under their eyes.
He held the gun to his head. A painful lump formed in his throat. Tears blinded him.
“Don’t be stupid,” Platt said. “If I’m right, you won’t die. If you’re right, then you die and I don’t think you have the heart for it.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Atkins, we’ve dealt with Doctor Shelley and his… friend. Let us reprogram you and you won’t have to deal with all of that pain. It’ll be like waking up this morning all over again.”
He remembered the blue skies this morning. The brief respite from the mud and rain. He remembered that rocket shooting high into the atmosphere and the murky clouds moving in to erase all clarity.
He handed Platt the gun.
The storm always won.