by m. james moore

  A homeless joe with no place to go, Ray had been sitting on a bench one evening, and was just about to pull the newspaper blanket over him, when a bright light flashed before his eyes. Temporarily blinded and his night-vision ruined, he shrugged it off and laid down, assuming some late-night roller skater had shone a light in his face again as they had many times before.

  However, when he woke up, he wasn't in the park anymore. He was inside a room, lying on some sort of cot. He hadn't been arrested again for vagrancy, he reasoned, because the room was much too big for even a holding cell. That, and the panel on the wall that looked like a built-in TV that read "Touch Here" in about 10 different languages isn’t normally a commonplace amenity for fish tanks, as he called them. The radiation suit on the floor was a surprise, plus the fact that someone managed to get his normally foul-smelling clothes quite clean without him knowing was quite a miracle. Or maybe it was a dream.

  Probably not, he reasoned, too, since everything seemed to real. He sat up on the one-man bed, and looked at the suit folded neatly on the floor, a helmet of sorts with a mirror visor firmly in place.

  At least no one will see my face, he thought. He checked the suit for any sort of identifiable code number they, or whoever, could track him by, and found none. He wandered around the room examining the walls which appeared to be concrete from touch, but the single red light bulb that illuminated the carpetless room didn’t help. Strolling toward the faint glow of the Touch Here screen, he casually grazed it with his middle center knuckle.

  An animation began to play in another language, which he didn’t understand. He figured as much. He’d tapped the wrong square on the screen. The pictures were easy enough to understand. It seemed to him he were to walk down a corridor, go down an electric freight elevator, through a large complex to a specific console and punch a few buttons in a specific sequence.

  Looked easy enough. The animation then paused as a few words in the other language prompted for a response, giving two options. Not knowing what to pick, he waited too long and the image simply returned to the Touch Here screen with the various languages available.

  This time he touched the English selection. He didn’t exactly feel so willing to doing whatever they, or whoever, wanted, but it didn’t appear there was much escape. He was definitely hungry, too.

  He did was he was told, pressing the responses to the prompts, and followed the steps to putting on the radiation suit. He learned that a meal would be provided after the task was complete, but wasn’t sure if he’d like it, though it probably had to be better than dumpster pickin’s.

  When properly suited up, the knobless door clicked. He pushed on it with a gloved hand, and it opened momentarily of its own power, sliding into the wall where the TV should have been.

  "Flat kind, I bet," he said, and there was a bright flash of light in his eyes again like before.

  He roused awake, remembering the animation mandating no talking. He was back in the bed, sans radiation suit, and the screen read Touch Here again. The suit was folded neatly on the floor.

  Frustrated, he grabbed the suit and put it on, walked over to the door and touched it. Nothing. The screen simply read Touch Here. He touched the English words and the animation scrolled his duty of key punching, in the same sequence, a total of seven buttons on an 8 x 8 grid of them. Again, there were directions of where to go in the complex, and having seen it twice did help anyway. After answering all the prompts again, the door clicked. He touched the door with his gloved hand and entered the hallway.

  It was just as the animation had shown, except there was sound. He could hear a mechanical clank and clomp like a steel mill, and the crackle of welding in the distance. The right side of the corridor was chain-link fence, as looking past it revealed the cavernous structure he was in, as well as the fact he was many floors up. The left side of the corridor was concrete, and the white lights on the concrete ceiling were a welcome sight, though dimmed through the mirror-coating of the helmet. The elevator shaft was open, and soon, as the animation demonstrated, the freight elevator came down very quietly.

  There were two others in the compartment, which had no door either. They both looked identical, and he supposed he looked the same from the outside, too. He wondered if they were bums like him.

  He stepped in when the compartment stopped, and saw the person at the controls acknowledge him with a nod. He nodded back, and looked to the other person. No reaction.

  The elevator eased down silently to the bottom floor, which didn’t have a chain link fence, and walked to the console he was supposed to.

  He couldn’t see how far up the ceiling was, but long cables came down and suspended giant light fixtures that didn’t illuminate much above themselves. The other side of the cavern looked like the side he’d just come from in various stages of progress. He quickly found the console, and was glad to see a paper had been clamped nearby the grid to remind him of the correct sequence. When the indicator light came on, he punched the sequence as instructed, and heard a ding as if he’d succeeded. A nearby Touch Here screen lit up, with more instructions, this time with a new place to go and a different duty. This time it was pushing and pulling levers in a proper sequence. He studied the animation carefully, and watched where to go. He touched the screen to acknowledge he understood, and walked where it said. He was getting eager for that food, whatever it was, even if it tasted bad. Something.

  His way across the floor was rather easy, and passed by a number of other workers. He noticed many of them looking up as he passed, nodding and going back to work. Some other workers in particular, by the look of their figure, appeared to be women. He saw the other workers notice them, too. He arrived at the handle bar controls, which looked like levers a crane operator might use. When the familiar indicator light came on, the Touch Here screen showed him again how to pull and push them, and he did in time with the animation. There was also the familiar ding, and the screen told him to go elsewhere.

  Stomach growling, he complied, to discover it was a cafeteria. Inside it, he found a line of identically dressed workers picking up trays of food as it became their turn, going into closed areas the size of a closet by touching the door the same way he did in his quarters. They ate quickly while inside, he guessed, then exited and put their trays in a cleaning contraption. They then stepped into a phone booth looking device, where they were disappearing as a bright light flashed over them.

  He saw a person in line ahead try to dance seductively close to one of the woman-looking workers, but was soon tapped on the shoulder by what seemed to be a supervisor, although he wore the same suit. The dancer turned around and stood back in line, and the lady-looking worker shook her head, tilted slightly, as if in a "ugh.. men" response.

  Soon enough, it was his turn to grab a tray and enter a booth. He waited for one to become available, and touched its door to enter. A Touch Here screen inside played a video of a peaceful landscape, but had no audio. Instructions written on the table told to remove the helmet and eat the soup-like substance quickly, and Ray noticed a timer in a portion of the screen counting down to how much time he had left.

  With no utensils, he lifted the warm bowl to his lips, and sipped the chunky goop, which tasted surprisingly like chicken and dumplings. After a number of big slurps, sometimes chewing, he put his helmet back on, and touched the door, despite having plenty of time left. The door slid open, and he walked into the phone booth area, and suddenly blacked out.

  Ray awoke again, well rested, in what looked to be the same room. The radiation suit was folded neatly again, and the Touch Here screen remained, waiting for input.

  He stretched, got up, and put on the suit. He walked over and touched the proper panel, and his instructions were read to him again, along with an animation on what to do next-operate the elevator.

  Simple tasks, he thought.

  After acknowledging the screen, he touched the door and it opened. To his surprise, he was about five floors higher this time, and proceeded to the waiting elevator. Again, there were notes by the elevator controls to remind him, and he followed them to the T. It seemed this would be all he did that day.

  On one particular trip down, he came to what looked like a new worker, coming from the level he’d started. When he stopped the compartment, he nodded to the worker, who nodded back. He then punched a button on the controls to move the elevator down. Down it went. They reached the bottom, the new worker and the other that was in walked out in different directions, and he moved the elevator back up to get more workers since none ever waited at the bottom to go back up.

  Probably because of that booth in the cafeteria, he thought. He wondered why there wasn’t one to just teleport them back down, eliminating the elevator nonsense. Oh well.

  It was up and down, up and down all day. Most of the passengers nodded, and couple of them didn’t. He particular enjoyed it when the female workers stepped in, each one would giving him the usual "ugh.. men" head shake like the woman in the cafeteria earlier, after he provided the complimentary glance up and down to show his appreciation of their appeal.

  Soon enough, after a considerable number of worker loads, a Touch Here screen at the base of the shaft indicated for him to go eat, so he went to the cafeteria, just like yesterday. Just as he was walking up, a worker dashed out of the doorway, and bolted for the elevator. Mind more focused on the food his stomach ached for, he shrugged it off and got in line. It was shorter than usual, so he was able to almost immediately grab a tray of grub, eat his food in the booth, and step into the light box. But before doing so, he noticed another light box on the other side of the room he hadn’t noticed before, without an out of order sign on it. That must have been the reason for the elevator. The down-teleporter was broken. He stepped into the light, and the flash came over him yet again.

  When he woke again, he was in the same looking room, but felt less rested. He groggily put in the suit, and listened to the suit-up instructions. He touched the screen, got his instructions for the day’s duties--putting all the notes on the clamps to remind workers of their duty.

  Perhaps he was groggy for a reason. No one seemed to be around yet, so he must have gotten the early bird shift. He had to run the elevator himself to get down, but with plenty of practice the day before, it was no problem. He clamed the instructions in the clip by the elevator controls, and at the bottom the nearby screen he’d seen yesterday told him where next to go. Each station’s screen told him where next to go, and he did. Some of them involved welding, some stacking metal, some with just turning knobs or pushing buttons. As he’d clipped the last paper up, it slipped out and he stepped on it by accident. He picked it back up and tried to dust off the suit’s boot print, but couldn’t so just clipped it back on. By then, the worker for that station had arrived, and nodded to him a greeting.

  Ray nodded in return, and the screen instructed him to head the to cafeteria. There was no one inside this time, and a Touch Here screen indicated to go in a back room. There were bags of dry powder with chunks in it, and a faucet. Instructions told him to mix them in a large bowl, dip some out for the small bowls on trays that came out soon, and send them down the line. His stomach growled as he did so, but did his task. He had been homeless after all, and the free good, so to speak, wasn’t half bad nor was it getting tiring day after day.

  After much of the big bowl had been served, there was a tremendous thump that shook the outside compound, and some movement to see what it was out in the cafeteria, but be could only continue serving food, as no one could talk in order to convey what happened.

  After the large bowl had been practically drained, the nearby screen told him to take the last bowl. It had a little over one serving still left in the bottom, so he took it.

  A well deserved extra helping for a long day, he thought.

  He put his bowl in the cleaning contraption and the bright light whisked him away upon entering the booth.

  He hadn’t thought to go look outside the cafeteria after he was done with kitchen duty, and he didn’t notice any commotion the next day, so he figure it was nothing important.

  He was daydreaming of that when he reached the bottom in the elevator to go do the new task, and didn’t notice whether the new guy nodded at him or not, as it had almost become something to look forward to. It was practically the only communication with others there was, what with the no-talking law. That, and the womanly sway and head-shake of disgust from them, too.

  Each day was basically the same routine, but with a new task each time. As the days crept on, he began to wonder where all the other people had come from. However, as the tasks became more difficult, he had less time to wonder.

  He did enjoy the idea of getting to rotate the various jobs, because it kept it from being boring. He enjoyed learning a new skill each time.

  This time, he got to be the first one into the cafeteria line. With plenty of booths to pick from, he selected one at random, closer to the door he came in, and ate his usual fill. When he emerged, a worker bumped into him, as if walking backwards, and fell down. Ray was able to keep his tray upright, but saw that the worker scrambled to his feet, and dashed out the door. Thinking little of it, he put the tray and bowl into the cleaning contraption and stood under the yellow light inside the phone booth thing. The now familiar bright white light came upon him again, and he blacked out.

  There was the time it was his turn to be supervisor, and got to tap the shoulder of another dancing person in line. He even tried dancing in line himself one day, and got the obligatory tap on the shoulder, too. The days crept on, and work got increasingly difficult.

  One particular day, though, there was an accident. While doing some welding higher up on the side being made to look like the elevator side, out of the corner of his visor he caught a glimpse of a worker falling from a significant height.

  Concerned for a fellow dutyman, he jumped down level to level until he reached the body on the floor. Two others were already on the scene, one with a portable light box device, placing over the fallen fellow. The person’s helmet had come off, but was facing the other way, toward a female-looking worker who had come up also. She caressed his head, then suddenly appeared dismayed as if the dutyman had succumbed to his injuries. The device was moved over the now-lifeless body, and the light overtook the dead fellow soon. Touch Here screens blinked to return to work, so everyone did.

  Many more days passed without incident until it happened again. While working on the ground floor, another worker fell, and landing in what Ray guessed to be about the same spot. In fact, he hadn’t noticed any blood stains on the floor days after the first incident.

  He saw the portable teleporter nearby and moved it over to the victim, who was being tended by a woman-figure--in the way the last woman did, with practically an identical expression of disappointment, according to her movements.

  Ray moved the device over the man, and the other dutyman nearby, upon seeing the "return to work" note flashing from the Touch Here screens, climbed back up the structure where he’d been welding. Funny, he thought, that someone was welding in the same place he had been only days earlier.

  Ideas began to form in Ray’s mind that made him uneasy. Had everyone been doing exactly the same task everyday? Now that he began to notice, there never seemed to be much progress on whatever they were doing. Could he have been just filling in for a missing worker in each position each day?

  In the next week or so, these ideas dwelled in Ray’s mind. In passing, once, on his way to the cafeteria, he noticed a fellow worker putting away the portable teleporter, just has he’d done after the accident the week before. He soon began to take more notice of his surroundings, and did notice that there was a dancing man in line, a supervisor to tap him on the shoulder, and a head-shaking woman who tilted her head the same time and at the same angle. It was beginning to seem like he was watching a movie everyday that was the same show every time, from a different angle.

  In the coming weeks, the idea drifted from his mind as he worked in different areas of the vast compound, out of view with familiar happenings.

  However, one day, while slurping his agelessly delicious chicken-and-dumpling goop, the door to his booth suddenly opened. A worker had opened his door by mistake and saw him without his helmet. The employee appeared started, and began to shake nervously. He’d backed up as the door closed back, and Ray heard the clank of a tray and bowl as the startled person bumped into someone coming out of the next booth away. This disturbed him greatly, back to those ideas. He could recall having been bumped into, himself. To put the idea to the test, he decided he would try something. He waited a few days until he thought the timing might be right, then tried it.

  He knew that the fellow that saw him had gotten a glimpse of Ray’s face, so he decided of his own will, not by any instruction, that he would open the door of a random booth when lunch time came around, to take a look at the man’s face inside. He was hoping to at least see someone else’s face for a change, instead of all mirror-coated helmets all day. It turned out to be someone he knew.

  That day, he formulated his plan while carrying a box of tools he was supposed to deliver from his room to another area, and knocked into the chain-link fence as he was daydreaming. He thought he dropped something, but with the clanks and clomps of metal echoing all throughout the large cavern and the timeliness of his task, he didn’t have time to look, and really didn’t care. After his usual duties, which seemed to take forever to get done, he was the fourth person to reach the choice for booths in the cafeteria. He didn’t have to wait for a booth being only the fourth, since there was an abundance of booths available this early.

  The first person in had been in a good while, the second probably just enough to have set down to begin, and the third was just entering. His choices we slim, so he decided to pick the second, reasoning that the first may already have begun to put his helmet back on, and the third probably hadn’t taken it off yet. He hadn’t even bothered to grab a tray, his heart was racing so much to see another face. He’d followed the instructions like a good employee all up until now, when he decided to go out on a limb. He touched the door with the gloved hand and it slid open. He wasn’t ready for the face he saw. It caught him completely off guard. The man sitting there slurping was, in fact, him. It was himself!

  He stammer backwards in complete shock, his mind reeling at the possibilities of what this meant. He bumped into the first eater, who was just exiting his booth, nearly knocking the tray and empty bowl out of his hand, and realized someone had done the exact same to him on his first day. Wait--had he bumped into himself? Mind racing and heart still pumping, he wanted to end this infinite deja vu. Having never found a way out of the complex, he decided the only way to escape was to jump. He raced to the waiting elevator, rode it up 15 stories, and saw a set of metal cutters he’d dropped that very morning. He grabbed them and began to clip away a hole in the chain link fence. He thrust himself out.

  For the brief moment of rapid decent to the concrete floor below, he saw a man welding in the same place he had been there those weeks ago of the first accident, and a man operating the controls the same way he had months ago. He wanted to leave, and his ticket out was about to be punched.

  He closed his eyes tight for the impact, felt an immense blow, then could suddenly feel nothing. His eyelids did crack open just for a moment, in time to see a woman figure kneel. She placed a loving hand on his head in comfort and he could see her face through the mirror surface ever so slightly, her beautiful red hair falling against the inside of the visor just before blackness swept over him in death.

  The next sound Ray heard was not a Touch Here screen, nor the clank of metalwork or the crackle of welding. It was the pulse monitor of a hospital. He rolled his head to the right and his blurry vision tried to focus. A doctor, who wore no helmet, was standing over him.

  "Are you all right, Mister Theon?" he said. "You’re lucky that policeman found you in time. The bright flashlight of his in your face didn’t seem to wake you, and you’ve been in a coma for two months now. Do you know where you are?"

  "Hos... hospit..." was all he could manage.

  "Yes, now save your strength, Ray. Now that you’re awake you seem to be improving. Nurse Catlin will tend to you. She's our new intern, just arrived today. Has more experience with coma patients. She was even in one herself, years ago."

  Ray turned his head to the left, where a gorgeous red-haired nurse stood and put a hand on his head for comfort. He was pleased at her appearance, and out of habit granted her the full up and down glance of appreciation.

  Just as she began to tilt her head and shake it in return, both of them looked each other right in the eye, smiles slowly turning to open-mouthed amazement.