The floor, the elevator, the people – everything was soaked in the downpour of rain that continued for two whole days. There was a line in front of the ticket counter of the subway, while several arrivals stood around simply waiting out the rain, or at least hoping it would lighten up a little so they can go home. People pushed each other impatiently, straining to hear the coming of the train from the platform above, while those that managed to pass the turning wheel at the entrance ran up the elevator without waiting for the slowly moving stair to bring them to the top.
George moved through the crowd and swept his magnetic card at the sensor of the wheel. Behind him an elderly lady was already anxious to go through, and through him if need be. What was all the fuss about? Until the next train came no one was going anywhere. The young man started climbing the regular stairs next to the elevator while behind him the old lady swore aloud – the wheel refused to acknowledge her ticket. People desired acceleration, wanted to fly through space and time and reach their goal, and then the next, and the next. It was as if life was just a series of stops and on each of them everyone had just mark their access card or ticket only to move on to the next, while filling the boredom of the journey with their cell phone or pad. No one cared, or didn’t dare to, about the end of the line.
There were a lot of people already on the platform, some of them holding their electronic pastime and comfortably insulated from their surroundings, enthralled by a book or endlessly scrolling through the Facebook activities of others. Still more carried conversations, wrote texts or just played games. Above them all the board showed two minutes to arrival while water dripping from the ceiling ran across the dim screen.
George followed the raindrops on their way down and once more turned his attention to the people. He regularly passed the time while in the subway by observing how others behaved, how they went to lengths to not notice each other or in some cases quite the opposite – they found a single object to study, so that they didn’t have to look at all the unknown faces around them. Most of the people just stared out of the windows at the tunnel walls – proof that people needed to see that the world didn’t end with the metal box they were currently in. It wasn’t accidental that in the first subway cars there were cases of motion sickness and nervous breakdowns – the cars without windows didn’t let the brains of the passengers visually ascertain that they were moving, so they got sick. However, George thought there was also another problem there. Forced to look at each other, passengers probably felt extremely uncomfortable. Still, was it possible that this separation from the world, this need to preserve the personal space appeared later, in more recent years? Subway cars with no windows were used a hundred years ago after all.
The whistle of the breaks of the arriving train yanked George out of his thought bubble and he lined up to enter the nearest door with the others around him. Most phones and e-readers were back in the bags now. People slowly piled into the carriage under the flashing alarm signal that threatened with imminent closing of the doors.
Once boarded and ensured that they were moving towards the next stop of their lives, people around George took their habitual poses and stared at their chosen object of attention. Part of them got out their Facebook terminals again. Mobile networks now spanned the underground parts too, making permanent self-encapsulation possible. George looked around in the hope of finding a familiar face, but it looked like he had missed all his friends that used the line that day. There were only strangers around, stubbornly staring through a window – literal or electronically metaphorical.
At the end of the carriage, leaning at the service door, was a skinny youth that stood half a head above the rest of the passengers. Something in his anxiously, almost feverishly moving gaze made George stare at him. The guy didn’t look out the window, did not care when the train was arriving or where it was right now. His eyes jumped from one passenger to another, and always returned to the large pad in his own hands. The device was wrapped in some thick protector, probably silicone, and its black edge displayed some strange pattern similar to a computer circuit. The young man constantly marked something on the screen, waived away invisible windows or messages, chose options from menus, and moved objects from one place to another. It was like watching a pantomime in a circus – so expressive and full of emotion and energy were his movements.
On both sides of the central aisle sat two high-school students talking to each other over the din of the train, each of them grasping a smartphone. From time to time one of them showed something to the other on his cell, then the other replied with a fun picture or joke of his own. The strange guy with the tablet often looked at them and in a moment of understanding George started looking at them as a group. The man moves something from one side of his screen to the other. The boy sitting on that side shifts his bag so that he can pass his cell to his classmate across the aisle. The later bursts into laughter, drawing disapproving stares from the older people around, then starts writing something on his own cell, probably to answer or find the funny thing for himself. The young man with the tablet watches him intently, then touches the screen without even looking. The searching schoolboy cries out triumphantly and turns his phone towards the first boy, who laughs in turn. The gaze of the man with the tablet moves to an older man standing next to the door. Double tap on the screen and the man’s phone rings. A conversation about a delivery follows, but the feverish gaze has already moved on. A girl in her mid-teens stands leaning on one of the vertical handlebars and scrolls through some webpage distractedly, flicking her finger upwards. A choice from a menu on the mysterious tablet and she is now hurriedly texting.
Several minutes later George had connected the activities of everyone using an electronic device to the actions of the strange adolescent with the tablet at the end of the carriage. Even the man sitting right next to George and reading an e-book got an encouraging tap on the screen from time to time. Watching the strange controller keep his “subjects” in check by feeding their interest in the electronic devices was so consuming, that George did not realize he was staring at him until he stared back.
It was as if electricity passed through the two of them. George jumped, scared out of his enthrallment, and a feverish tremble passed down his spine. The other started typing something in the tablet as fast as he could, anxiously glancing up every few seconds. Suddenly George felt a strong desire to call his brother and told him what he had seen. His hand was halfway into his pocket when he caught the intense stare of the Controller. He had made him think about the phone! George willed his hand out of the pocket and grabbed the horizontal bar that ran above the seats. He could call his mother, she’d believe him! Or his friends at work! His boss! His grandmother…
The carriage was filled by the shrill sound of the message that warned about the closing of the doors, and got George out of the stupor that the line of mental suggestions had put him into. Call his grandmother?!? That had gone too far. He crossed the distance to the Controller in two strides, grabbed the tablet out of his hands and jumped out of the closing doors. None of the passengers had time to react and most of them probably didn’t even notice what went on. Glancing back through the glass, George saw that the Controller was utterly changed. His straight posture was gone, he had shrunk with at least twenty centimeters and had to lean on the door so he wouldn’t fall down. His face was pale, gaunt, starved, his eye were sunk and closed now, and above them George for the first time saw the sweat on his forehead and the greasy hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a month. With the train moving off the figure seemed to sink to the floor, then it disappeared in the tunnel.
The adrenaline slowly started to wear off, George’s breathing normalized and the noise in his ears died down. Looking at the sign on the wall he realized that he had missed his station. He was now in the part of the line that he rarely used. Going to the other side of the platform he looked in the tunnel that was going to supply the train in the opposite direction. A thud came from the floor at his feet and something pressed against his ankle, making him jump.
The hellish tablet had slipped forgotten from his fingers. He picked it up and looked it over. Fortunately the thick casing had protected it from any visible damage. The screen was completely black, the edge did not have any buttons or cable connectors. They were probably hidden under the protector, but George couldn’t peel it off the edge. The thing probably used contactless charging and wireless for everything. The pattern of the edge continued on the back and combined in the center in a symbol that looked like a compass with several hands. The wrapping wasn’t silicone and didn’t stick to his fingers, it looked more like a kind of matted metal. Still the thing had fallen with barely a sound and the edge didn’t show any damage.
The train arrived and George went on it still looking at his trophy. There were few passengers inside, the morning rush had already died down. While George was looking around, the tablet in his hands suddenly vibrated. The screen had lit up and showed a diagram of the compartment. The passengers were marked with dots of varying colour. He looked closely at the screen and discovered one of the people was missing. A touch on one of the dots immediately showed a list of the type and model of available electronic devices. The tablet had scanned the compartment the moment George had gone in! Obviously the missing passenger had no electronics on him. George felt an indulgent smile spread across his face. The people without mobile connection were few lately, and they were getting fewer still. Soon there would be none, and everyone would be accounted for. Part of his consciousness wondered what “accounted for” meant, but his attention had already shifted to the menu that appeared all around the edge of the screen. It was written in English of course, he hated working with localized electronics. The inappropriate translations only messed with one’s good habits.
The menu covered all possible actions that the chosen subject could execute. Conversations, games, document access, work and pleasure – it was all classified by type and aim. Next to each of the options there was a number in brackets. The PRICE, flashed through George’s mind. Why was the PRICE so important? He didn’t know, and didn’t care much. It was just a game, was it not? In the top right corner of the screen appeared a large number with pale blue, almost white digits; the background was silvery and filled with beautiful curved lines reminiscent of vines and wild trees that had never been touched by a man. In front of the number stood the symbol from the back of the tablet, the largest hand pointing up and to the right, at about forty five degrees. George looked back at the proposed actions. The credit available would cover a lot of them. He chose one at random and before he had looked up from the screen he knew – it was already done. The passenger that he had selected was getting out his smartphone and checking his email.
Suddenly a new number appeared in the top left corner. It was very small, several times smaller than the PRICE paid. George started and looked back to the right, an unexplained shiver passing through him. The credit had diminished. The background had taken on a light pink sheen, the curvy lines were different. Right, so the game was until the credit was gone. And what was the goal?
Answering his thoughts, the screen showed a list of names. They were all written in different languages, with different alphabets, most of them understandable, some barely a line of squiggles to his eyes. In front of every name there was a number that signified their achievement. At the back in brackets and with much smaller digits was another number. The PRICE paid, went through his mind again. Why did he always go back to that, as if it mattered how many virtual points someone has spent? People with a better score that had spent less were obviously higher on the scoreboard. The list flew down and stopped at a name written in Bulgarian. His name. In front of it was his tiny score, at the back – the PRICE he had paid. He shivered subconsciously and looked away from the number. His name was last, there was nothing below it. He could at least correct that! And in the top of the list there was a glimmer of light, a promise for something more, something bigger, more important. He had to reach it, had to prove himself worthy!
The new Controller dived wildly into the orders he directed at his charges, studying the endless menus of the Terminal in stride. In the top right corner the PRICE he was able to pay started its descent, the curved beautiful lines gradually straightened and looked more and more like a computer circuit, while the arrow of the symbol slowly went to point downwards. The background started losing its angelic, silvery sheen, and turned bright, bloody red. The Controller didn’t know it yet, but when the arrow pointed straight down he would have paid the maximum and ultimate PRICE, and his way was only Down from there. The Terminal was of course ready for this moment and impatiently waited to make its one-time offer that the Controller couldn’t turn down.
Unlimited credit for control in exchange for a single Soul.