~In the distant future~
Nobody can break an addiction until they decide that they want to be unhappy.
I have lived in fear for three years. The reasons for this fear will become self-evident, and you likely know them if you live in this time, but first I need to explain who I am. My name is Mark Lehrer, a third grade teacher in the town of Badger, on the edge of Kansas by Missouri. It’s a small town in the most traditional sense, and before the long day we now find ourselves a part of, it used to be a nice place to live. We had some of the lowest crime rates in the state. The land is as flat as you might expect, the sky is open and wide. There was a time when this town was shrinking, after the turn of the century, but some attention came back to the town in the form of land developers, and surprisingly enough the town grew. Enough to build a new school, at least, which was finished a little before I got my teaching degree. That’s how I moved to Badger. I don’t know whether I’ll ever get the chance to move away, not that it would help.
After I had been teaching for four years, people started getting sick. Everyone got it, and everyone seemed to be fine at first. The doctors explained that it was a weak pathogen, highly infectious but mostly harmless. The ATCC captured the culture for study, and epidemiologists spent their time guessing at how the disease could spread and mutate. It was a simple enough strain; the virus gave the infected a short runny nose, followed by a cough and rash. It seemed close enough to the common cold that if it hadn’t been for how widespread it was, nobody would have even noticed it was any different.
And then people started to fall asleep. It hit everyone at different times, with no discernible rhyme or reason. The scientists working on the disease had no forthcoming answers on why people were falling asleep; they only noticed that the victims, which included among their number a few fellow researchers, had lowered levels of acetylcholine and spasmodic brain activity. They tried to keep their concerns to themselves while they looked for a cure, but as people began to drop like flies, the general public became aware that something was deeply wrong. People everywhere were entering comas, and not just those who would be expected to due to concussion or trauma. They fell asleep, as usual, in their usual place in their own homes, and failed to wake up.
The sickness that swept the world may have been reason to be afraid for most, but even as I heard the rumors, I was not greatly concerned by its progress. No, it was the aftermath of the sickness, the sickness with no end in sight, which kept me up at night.
At the time when people began to fall asleep, there were some unrelated concerns over the school budget. Like most towns in Kansas at the time, Badger had been feeling the brunt of shaky fiscal policy, and we were forced to make some tough decisions concerning which teachers would stay and who would be out of a job. The administration ended up making salary cuts and dropping some of the staff, which meant more work for those who remained. Badger, being a fairly small town to begin with, could afford to increase class sizes, so the change wasn’t as drastic as it otherwise could have been. Still, I felt the brunt of the increased workload.
I was never somebody who enjoyed excessive work. If it had a tangible purpose, I understood it; I even encouraged myself to partake in it, but never enjoyed it. So the increased workload I experienced was not welcome. Understand that as an educator, I felt an obligation to each student passing briefly through my classes to present the ideas they were learning as clearly as possible, to invigorate their minds to the utmost. I decided to teach out of idealism, and hoped that my students would learn to think not only with the cynicism and ‘realism’ that pervaded our daily lives, but with some form of the same hopeful optimism. This ideal is, of course, one that takes effort, and more students meant more stress for me. This time was something of a focused, harried one, and I didn’t focus on the disease while the media and doomsayers spoke of cataclysm.
Our town got the disease late, which was in a way a blessing and a curse. Perhaps the size of the town, the infrequency of visitors, contributed. While we had few sleepers in the early days, we also remained naïve of the ways society was changing outside of our town. Some people had been paying attention to national news, and had an inkling of just how things had changed for the worse, but I remained in the dark. I used to read newspapers, or at least surf the web, but in those days, my workload prevented me from anything more than a cursory glance at world events. My later mental state was certainly a product of those days, before my students began to fall asleep as well. But that’s jumping ahead, so in order to avoid getting ahead of myself, allow me to backtrack once more.
The world outside of Badger, frantically hurrying to combat the disease, created teams to fight it. Most were focused on merely reversing the effects, the damage. They all failed; for all intents and purposes, the sleepers were vegetables. Some of the more reasonable teams looked at vaccination, hoping to save those who hadn’t contracted the disease yet. Still, those attempts usually only ended in more sleeping test subjects. For the sleeping beauties of the world, there was no prince forthcoming.
Then, about five months after the outbreak was really noticed, a team working on stimulants came across a formula that could prevent the user from falling asleep. Not only with regards to the eternal sleep, but any kind of sleep. After some refinement, they “perfected” it to mitigate the fatigue from staying awake. Simulated sleep, in pill form. Countries around the world declared it a godsend. They began to mass produce it as soon as they could. Everyone had the chance to have it, and everybody used it. They called it Red Eye.
In Badger, we didn’t think we would ever need the drug; the town was the sort that eschewed unnecessary things, enjoyed sleep, and hated change… and besides, no sleepers had appeared yet. Not until Danny Kirkland, a fifth grader, went, and others started falling in heaps. The mood of the town changed overnight. Everyone stopped sleeping. The hospitals set up life support for the sleepers, and everyone pitched in to keep them alive and comfortable. At the time, hopes were still high for an absolute cure. We were the losing team, sure, but a comeback was never off our minds. This isn’t exactly a new story, is it? It’s what happened, but seemed to follow all of the conventions of disease-based apocalypse. Which is to say, more people fell asleep than replaced them. We were losing alright.
It was, at this time, that the commission organized to distribute the drug, the Consciousness Preservation Commission, came to town. They were largely funded off of taxes, but also took donations from those who felt obliged to give. They came to my door, asking if I had anything to “help the sleepers”. I gave them ten dollars the first time. The second time I waved them off. The third time I didn’t even open the door, and they stopped coming after that.
Epiphanies don’t always happen all at once. They can come gradually. Not sleeping gives a special kind of epiphany, where one begins to mix dreams and reality, until one is both awake and asleep, all the time. While Red Eye mitigated some of the fatigue one gets without sleep, it couldn’t entirely replace it, so everyone who hadn’t fallen asleep was still always tired, always distracted. Memories became more difficult to hold onto. Thoughts mixed and jumped unpredictably. Still, people managed. They held on.
And here’s the thing about epiphanies, man, they aren’t all that satisfying. I mean, at first, of course, you get that rush, and you know something new, something that nobody else knows, and you get psyched. But it’s like recognizing a big name actor in some film nobody knew they were in- knowing the actor isn’t all that notable. Nobody cares. You know it, but it doesn’t make you a part of the movie. You’re still just watching. You aren’t a part of that incestuous circle of filmographic caricatures. And you can choose to interrupt the movie and annoy your fellow viewers by pointing out the trivia, or just shut up and carry that baby to your grave. Epiphanies are nothing. And everybody was hurting, and feeling good about surviving, and feeling better about having those half-baked epiphanies, and none of it was remotely satisfying in the end, after the thrill was gone.
So the way it went, I taught my class as the number of students dwindled. I need not describe every face as they passed out, sometimes individually, sometimes en masse, but always towards the same end goal. Children are often, if not always, less disciplined than adults, and it was easy to miss a dose of Red Eye. Sometimes they fell asleep in class, and it was never so tragic as when you knew they would never wake up. I took my daily dose, but staying awake did not keep me employed. Two months after Red Eye was released, school was canceled. The kids were all snoozing. We would have no new researchers, at least from Badger. And I would have no more money after my savings ran out.
Despite being thrifty with what I had, finitude balks in the face of decline. I had to find a way to get more money, but nobody was hiring, especially in a place as small as Badger. I offered my services to every place in town. I even went as far as Galena, and passed over the state border to Carl Junction, but the story was the same, and I only ended up with a little less gasoline. Eventually I stopped going anywhere, and the rest of the world stopped coming to Badger. Except for the CPC. I invested in some seeds to see if I could grow my own food. I terminated my electricity, canceled my newspaper. I had no news, except what I could bum off of others. Sustainability seemed within reach. Except, I needed Red Eye, like everybody, and it cost fifty dollars for a fifteen pill box. That was enough to make it just over a week, while playing it safe. For someone my weight, two a day was “safe”. One day, feeling especially apathetic about my prospects, I only took one. I stayed awake, though the fatigue was worse. So I started doing that.
But even that couldn’t last forever. Until the plants grew, I would have to continue buying food. I got the cheapest stuff I could find, and used an old wood stove to cook it. Rice and beans, mostly, with occasional greens and citrus fruits to avoid malnourishment. I couldn’t hunt, and was too much of an animal sympathizer to consider it seriously. It was bare bones. I was having hourly epiphanies, and decided in that common form of cowardice to keep them to myself. Some of them appear in my journal, some have never left my mind.
You see where this is going. Eventually, I had forty dollars and no remaining Red Eye. I had few options left. And I could have sworn I had been seeing things at this time, when I chose to write, because I saw exactly what was going to happen to me for the rest of the day following and where I would end up. I do not know if I can prove its reality, at least, not here, but it was a true premonition. Like all epiphanies, it fills me with wonder, and then dull dread. But in the off chance it was not merely a fever dream caused by my debilitated mental state, a record of having known it before it occurred is contained in the following.
Rumor had it that the old dance hall, a little out of town and by now long abandoned, had been repurposed for gambling. Initially, it had just been gambling for cash, but as I found it, it had grown into something of a casino for the miracle drug. I, out of Red Eye, was invited by a sanitation worker I was acquaintances with to come by for a chance to retain consciousness.
I agreed to visit the casino, which had been created under the table by what I had described to me as “powerful men”. I went out equal parts desperation and resignation. I wasn’t sure why of all people a sanitation worker was helping me; I hadn’t showered in days. The guy came by to get me while the sun was setting, and we set off for the dance hall. We reached the door, guarded by a stocky man I recognized as the gas station clerk. He let me in, while the sanitation worker stayed outside. I was brought to a table with six chairs, each with two Red Eye pills placed on a plate. Two men and a woman were already seated.
“Entrance fee is thirty,” I was told from behind a curtain, and I offered the requisite price. It was taken roughly, and a chair was pulled out for me. In the next hour two more people, a man and a woman, came through the door, each taking a place at the table.
“Each of these pills are full Red Eye doses, and you are to take them now.” Nobody had even touched the pills yet, but now that permission was given, everyone took them hungrily, including myself. After consuming the pills, the clerk from outside handcuffed each of us to our chairs. Our narrator continued.
“You may recognize me as the mayor of Badger, and I thank you for coming tonight. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and when there is not enough to feed everyone, individuals must be sacrificed for the greater good. This first dose places you all on an even playing field. Of the money collected from all six of you, a third that is, sixty dollars, will go to the winner of the competition, while the house retains the rest. Those who fall asleep have lost the competition. All of you shall remain seated until only one conscious player remains. Good luck, and we will observe you carefully.”
That voice was not the voice of the mayor of Badger. The mayor of Badger had fallen asleep a week ago. Nonetheless, if he was in control of a local supply of Red Eye, then he may as well have been president of the country.
We began to wait as the plates were removed. None of us talked at first, knowing that some of those at the table would likely end up dead. Functionally dead, at least. Brain dead. Dreaming forever, until even dreams stopped.
After one of the men at the table fell asleep, one of the others breathed a sigh of relief.
“Glad that wasn’t me,” he said. The ice having been broken, it was clear for us to speak. Until one of the women spoke:
“You know, it’s better not to talk. You’re keeping everyone else engaged, awake, if you talk.”
“But you’re keeping yourself awake too,” the other woman said. “It’s still a level playing field.”
Despite the barrier having been opened, a few minutes passed silently, during which the first woman and another of the men fell asleep too. There were three of us left. I thought I was starting to see flickering shadows playing at the corners of the room, but I couldn’t see what was casting them.
“You know,”, the remaining man said, “we’re handcuffed to these chairs.”
“So?” I said.
“What reason does the house have to honor the agreement, and get a pill to the final contestant? None. It would be a waste of an extra pill or two.”
“They gave us the first few,” the woman pointed out.
“Yeah, but they still make up their losses in entrance fees. If we got here and didn’t see the pills on the plates, do you think any of us would have let ourselves be handcuffed?”
The woman blanched. I did too, internally. He was right. I was going to die here. We all were.
“They can hear us, you know,” I half whispered.
“So what? Not like we can get out of here. We’ve already lost.”
A few more minutes went by. The woman fell asleep, head lolling to one shoulder. Then, about five minutes later, the other man did too. Perhaps living with more fatigue than your average Joe had inoculated me somewhat, or perhaps I just got lucky, but I was the only one still awake.
And nobody came for me.
And it was here that I remembered something I had heard of on television. A way to get out of handcuffs, by dislocating one’s own thumbs. I had small hands to begin with, so I figured I’d try it. It took about three minutes to get the bravery to actually do it though, and I started to feel my eyes drooping. I blinked and saw something scamper under the table and out the doorway. Too quickly to identify. And without making a sound. I was not yet dreaming, but imagining as if I were whilst awake. I was hallucinating.
I forced my thumbs against the arms of the chair, until I heard a popping noise and lancing pain in my hands. That woke me up a bit. I was, surprisingly enough, able to slip free of the chair. I staggered to my feet, and walked from the former discotheque casino. I stepped out onto the road, where the sun was setting. Wasn’t the sun setting when I had entered the building? It had not been a whole day, had it? It could not have been.
I walked, dragged myself along the dusty road back to the main town. The road passed alongside some neighborhoods, I remembered, and I could probably stop at one of the houses that had not already been abandoned for help. How many people were left in Badger? Not many… were there?
As I neared the town, I heard it before I saw it. Loud machinery. As I came closer, I saw it. Or them, really. Giant machines, the size of mountains, rolling along the road before coming to each house, and crushing them like giant trash compactors. The setting sun cast them in silhouette, their monolithic shadows, a wonderful and terrible sight, across the roads to me. They moved like living beings, consuming the houses. These were the apex predators of humans. On their sides were painted the letters CPC. Each a ferocious beast of their species, and cleaning the remaining refuse of mine own from what was now their world. Twas an eldritch sight. The houses, one by one, were becoming scrap material.
I fell to my knees, and knew at last, that I was dreaming.