Sunday Showcase No. 41 – Igor Mikutski Igor Mikutski is...Read More
This week on the Sunday Showcase, we’re excited to share Alice Eldar’s short story, “The Procedure.” Her dystopian futuristic tale follows the protagonist John, who has been selected by a mysterious algorithm and sent to a “sleep house.” When he leaves, his life will never be the same. Warning: once you start reading this story you won’t be able to put it down — or stop thinking about it.
About the writer:
Alice Eldar is originally from London and now lives in Tel Aviv. She is currently studying for a PhD in Neuroscience at the Weizmann Institute, where she researches learning and memory processes in mice. In her previous lives, she studied Comparative Literature, worked with students with special needs, and taught English in Taiwan. A lifelong bookworm, Alice has recently started taking the desire to write fiction more seriously. She loves going to the cinema and swimming in the sea.
By Alice Eldar
“You have been sleeping for sixteen hours and three minutes.”
It takes a few seconds for the message to be registered by John’s slowly waking brain. Confused fragments from the previous days start to mingle with and then overpower the remnants of his dreams as he opens his eyes and takes in his surroundings. A long line of beds stretches out in front of him, some empty, others occupied with sleepers. John tenses up as it hits him that he is not at home.
This is John’s first time in a sleephouse, but he has no doubt that this is where he is. Everyone knows about these places, but no one ever thinks they will see the inside of one. It is far more comfortable and cleaner than he had imagined. But the soft lights and tasteful curtains cannot mask an oppressive sense of doom that overwhelms John as he casts his gaze around the room.
“Please feel free to continue to rest as much as you require.” The voice, gentle and warm as it is, makes him start this time. He fumbles with the volume of the smart bed control system to turn it off.
He tries to remember how he got here but can’t bring anything to mind. The last thing he remembers is standing in the street after leaving the courthouse, and how it had started to rain, a soothing, drenching rain that he succumbed to, while others around him rushed to take cover. He must have collapsed in the street and eventually been carried here by agents. He wondered if anyone he knew had passed by and seen him, and whether they had paused or just continued on sheepishly, as he had done himself so many times.
He had arrived at the courthouse half an hour before his appointment, wearing his best suit and smelling of minty mouthwash. He checked the mirror in the bathroom and was surprised to see how pale he had become despite all the extra sleep, how the skin around his eyes was dark, enhancing the look of fear that would not go away. He tried a smile, but it looked grotesque, so he settled for maintaining a neutral expression.
“Please have a seat, sir, the committee will see you shortly.”
So the receptionist had said, over an hour ago. John cast a cautious glance at that receptionist again, engrossed in the screen that sat in front of him and seemingly unaware of John or of the length of time that had passed. John wondered if he should ask again but feared appearing rude. That was the last thing he wanted that day. So he waited in the wooden chair with its back up against the corridor, one in the middle of a long row of otherwise empty chairs.
He sat up straight, making every effort to manifest in himself a representation of the ideal citizen. He limited his thoughts to positive ones about himself only — how hard he worked at his job, the new street-cleaning robot he had designed that cleaned eight percent more efficiently than the previous model, his wife — pregnant with their baby, how happy they were together, how successful she was becoming.
As time continued to go by, he ran out of positive things to think about, and the fear started to creep back in. By the time he was finally called in, he was thoroughly nervous, and had to take deep breaths to calm his trembling body before entering the courtroom.
“Mr John Robinson?”
“That is correct, sir.”
John tried to make out the face of the speaker of the voice, but he was seated at a desk so far away at the other end of the room that he was unable to get a strong impression beyond the two thick black eyebrows that were furrowed in concentration over a screen. The eyebrows finally raised up.
“It is not clear to me what the purpose of your appointment is.”
John waited to see if the man would continue. When he said nothing more, John cleared his throat and prepared to speak the lines he had rehearsed.
“Your Honour, I apologise for the confusion. I am here because I believe that I was mistakenly determined to be a candidate for the Procedure, and therefore I would like to make a plea to have the Procedure halted and reversed.”
As John spoke, the eyebrows inched further and further up until they reached the top of the man’s forehead and stayed there. Five minutes later, John was out in the street.
The memory of it stings and makes his whole body cringe under the covers.
How much time did he have left now? Was it sixteen hours he had slept, is that what the bed had told him? In that case he had eight days left. Inevitably, the question that had haunted him for the past week returns — Why? Why me? Why now?
The only answer he had received was from the FAQ in the Procedure Guide — ‘We recommend you refrain from asking these questions, as it may impair the enjoyment of your remaining time. Please trust that the sorting system functions optimally and accept that your time has come. Your sleep will help everyone in society in one of the most meaningful ways possible.’
The truth was no one really knew, though everyone had a theory. He had read an article about it — the programmers who initially designed the algorithm no longer understood how it worked, it was something to do with deep networks that teach themselves. The juicy part of the story had been that one of the original programmers was chosen by the algorithm and was frantically trying to dig into the code to understand how it could have happened. Soon after the story came out, the website that ran it was closed down along with many others and John never found out what happened in the end. That story was what made him sure that he could convince the court that there must have been some bug in the code for him of all people to have been chosen. The worst crime he had ever committed was speeding, and his wife had committed far more of that than he had.
He curled up into a fetal position as his thoughts now turned to his wife Anna. He pictured her at home, moving around their house, that growing belly that he always imagined was smiling roundly at him. The life inside, suspended in a blissful preconscious haven. The pregnancy had made her glow, and she seemed to be floating on a cloud of contentment, despite all the pains and sickness she suffered as the baby made itself known. Before she got pregnant, they had been trying for over a year and were starting to worry that it would never happen. Every month when her period came, Anna withdrew into a sadness that deepened each time. When they finally got a positive test result, all the sadness that had accumulated over the year started to act as fuel for a cautious, growing joy as each day passed and she remained pregnant, past the ‘danger zone’ and into the second trimester.
John remembers the two of them walking in the street one evening, holding hands and occasionally smiling at one another, speechless at their good fortune, finally. They passed by bodies slumped over in the street, desperate bodies that hadn’t yet been taken off to the sleep houses, and regarded them with detached sympathy. In the back of his mind John had thought — surely this baby will make me more valuable. I will be responsible for the all-important New Generation that everyone pins their hopes on. That has to win me some points with the bloody algorithm.
Mustering the energy to get moving, John presses the button on the smart bed that tilts the whole bed forward and to the side and nudges him to his feet. He finds his shoes neatly placed at the foot of the bed and pulls them on hastily. I must go and see Anna, he thinks. She is all alone at home and must be worried sick. He makes his way to the end of the room, sneaking glances at the occupied beds and wondering if and when the sleepers will wake up, and how long they have left, and what they did to deserve it.
He collects his belongings from a desk in a lobby — they politely hand over his phone and the rejection letter from the court, dry now but crumpled from having been soaked in the rain.
“We hope to see you again soon, John…” he walks away before the words can sink in, but the question still arises in his mind – Will this be the place where I’ll sleep my final sleep?
He exits the sleephouse, recognizes his location and walks straight toward the tube station across the street, as if through a tunnel. He turns on his phone, no messages from Anna. He waits a few seconds to give a chance for a delay in the signal, but he notices that he has received messages from other people already, so he quickly gets concerned. He rapidly messages her. ‘Anna, I’m on my way home. Are you okay?’ He rushes down the steps and hops on a train as the doors slide shut behind him. A vibration prompts him to look at his phone again. It’s Anna. ‘I’m great! See you soon.’ The upbeat tone makes him double-take, and he searches for an explanation. Maybe the sleep house had notified her and she knew he was safe and would come back soon? He hadn’t even told her about what had happened at the courthouse, though he guessed she probably wouldn’t be surprised judging from the low expectations she had expressed as he set out. “I just have never heard of a single case where it worked, and you read the FAQs, it is an irreversible process….” She had said, pleading with him with her eyes not to allow himself to believe that anything he could try might work.
She had been right, after all.
Suddenly it occurred to him that his private thoughts that day when they walked hand in hand had been completely wrong. Maybe making this baby had not increased his value but rather had marked the end of his usefulness. After all, two people aren’t strictly necessary to raise a child, especially not now with the new assistant machines. There were even robots that would tickle and chase your child for you, and others that taught them how to swim.
These thoughts hung over him as he sat in the nearly empty carriage, his body gently but firmly rocked by the purposeful movement of the train.
At his front door, he presses his finger to the door key, a green laser scans it from top to bottom and the door clicks open.
“Welcome home, John.”
The same gentle voice that all the machines share, though the gentleness for John now seems only mocking and superior.
He steps inside and is greeted by the familiar colours and smells of home. He can hear Anna talking in another room, so he follows her voice and finds her in the living room with the doors that look out to the garden. She is facing a camera, beautiful and confident, and on the table next to her are a collection of items that she has received to help her with pregnancy and to prepare for the baby, in return for some advertising on her channel. She holds one of them to the camera, and as John enters the room, she turns to him with a slight look of annoyance at being interrupted. In an instant though, she breaks into a smile and lays down her product carefully, before moving around the sofa to greet him.
“How are you? Oh, you look very tired my darling. What can I get for you?” she says as she softly touches his shoulders and looks into his eyes.
He isn’t sure whether to tell her about everything that has happened, but he starts to feel that it doesn’t matter anymore. She doesn’t seem to want to know. She already knew that the Procedure was happening, she had accepted it, so other events had lost their importance. She had suggested that maybe the best thing to do would be to try and enjoy the remaining time together as much as they could.
“I, I don’t know, I am pretty hungry though. I was worried about you, are you okay?” he responds, although he can clearly see that she is fine, glowing as ever.
“I’ll make you a nice sandwich, or would you prefer beans on toast? I’m happy to make whatever you like my darling.” She smiles at him sadly. He searches her face, looking for any hint of hope that somehow the inevitable could still be avoided. He finds none.
“Beans on toast sounds perfect.”
As she prepares the food for him, John decides to go and sit in the garden. He finds his chair and sits back in it. This was where he had been sitting when he noticed the drone approaching just over a week earlier.
The email had already reached his inbox, but he had indulged in his guilty pleasure of leaving his phone in the house while he sat in the garden, a weekend treat that was even more pleasant given the sunny spell. As the drone hovered above him, John prepared to call out to Anna that another delivery had arrived from one of her sponsors, but this time the package that landed on the patio was for him. He tore open the envelope and pulled out a glittering gold card, with the words ‘Special Privileges’ and his name printed in shiny letters.
The email had explained the rest-‘For much of human history, the sacrifice of life has been highly honored. Your time has come to take part in this beautiful tradition for the sake of the future of our species. Congratulations! You will shortly receive a card which will allow you to enjoy a range of special privileges for your remaining time…’ He couldn’t bring himself to read on.
As he remembers back to it now, looking up at the leaves silently quivering in the breeze, he wonders about the privileges and what they might include. He still has another week now, though each day will be one hour shorter as the time of his sleeping increases. How many hours has he been awake for now? There probably isn’t much time left for today. After eating, he thinks, I’ll see if Anna wants to lie down with me upstairs, and if I can lay my hands on that round belly as I fall asleep.
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