Josef Stall reclines in his easy chair at an angle verging on feckless. Despite the danger, he has no fear. It isn’t long before the balance gears in his backbones calibrate and shift his position to a calm upright.
Lights strafe in from the outside, neon, flickering night. The dust-hewn blinds trap in the dehydrated air. He gave up on it weeks ago: the Broken Filtration Unit Situation. Clean air’s cost has dramatically spiked, itching his artificial lungs with irritation, squeezing the life from his pocket and pride.
Stall disconsolately rises as the calipers around his knees forcibly erect his posture. Meanwhile, the spinal fluid dispenser simultaneously kicks into production the hallowed, placating, chemical tripartite. Equal parts adrenaline, dopamine, and an unequal half-proprietary, wholly heady concoction that pumps throughout the fibers of his circulatory system.
He struggles to remember a time before “Balance”.
The small print proclaimed it as “the intelligent manipulation of the body’s motor functions by means of arrayed smart-gears, servos, micro-pulleys and levers in concert with a carefully-coordinated, chemically-calibrated dissolution of the interplay between opposing hormonal transactions.” It said one thing. The reality was far creepier. These have led to a blank, unchecked: Josef Stall perceives no physical or emotional feelings or sensations in the slightest.
His blissfully unaware perception has rendered all things peaceful, but the darkness that enshrines what little remains of Josef’s emotional memories leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Even if, in his indifferent emotive response, he is physically incapable of showing it.
The remembrance of his recliner’s memory foam reaction flashes before his eyes. He looks down, to no avail, at the non-responsive chair. He recalls some vague anamnesis, in which he stood, looking down. The moment the foam puckers up instantaneously into its remembered position.
And yet, he cannot recollect the moment that precedes this. Short-term memory was the earliest spoil in the reality war waged by younger generations. Willing, willful, amnesiacs all. The developers and proponents of Haptic Feedback.
In their fervent interactionism, they had deemed it no longer necessary to wonder what you thought or perceive what you felt. Haptic Feedback altered, fed on and shaped your perception of experiences, siphoning adaptive thought patterns and sensate feedback loops through you. Affected, it offered up total stimulation without the demands and complications that accompanied self-analysis.
It had been a tantalizing prospect in such an overly convoluted world, seductively marketed as the freedom from unfettered trappings. Apparently, such a thing was only made possible by achieving both a public and private “Clean Slate”.
Josef Stall stands, domestically surveying the imperceptibly rippling landscape beneath his feet. He levels a glance at a cracked photo frame, propped steeply against the media unit extrusion built into the wall.
He is in that frame. Stall labors with a foggy, nauseated sense of the love he once held for the man within its borders. Yet he cannot place the feeling, what it was to love or where such emotions used to reside. Josef Stall is so divulged of alertness about his position in the world, he no longer recognizes the man in the frame as his younger self.
Whether in that frame or a mirrored reflection, Josef Stall looks to himself the picture of unfamiliarity. The slate is wiped unclear.
In a rare moment of remembrance, Josef recalls a certain irony. He never thinks of himself as particularly “clean”. Then there is a thought about some sort of recess in physio-emotional responsiveness that inconveniently sends the sweat glands into overdrive. He is awash with the subdued awareness that deodorizing is a complete waste of time. Without emotions, it's hard to even imagine what it felt like to be embarrassed before.
Drifting about the apartment, his shoe’s silently shifting and whirring during optimal responsiveness to the floor, an earlier Stall had felt achingly remiss without a Sense-Terrain installed inside his living space. The prospect of life without, wanting more: this he'd disavowed.
Stall had pined for the promised, limitless interactions with his Haptic attire. To own the beguiling line of available sensory accouterments. He’d had to afford it. A Qubit coder’s pay wasn’t what it used to be, the spoil of yet another disruptive industry disrupting itself -- but no matter. It was important, no, essential, to have and maintain standards.
He can't be sure but at one time or another Stall had been convinced he'd been the first and only resident in his building with the forbearance to take the plunge and join the ranks of the Sensory Society, resident inside the Haptic system.
He is momentarily reminded of a vague desire he’d all but forgotten. Stall had intended to invite a group of woefully unremembered friends to his apartment. Together, they could have donned any one of his spare sensory suits and basked in the solace and sensory flow of stimuli in silence.
Like every other desire, the moment fleetingly passes. With his right hand, Stall brushes the outer rung of his suit’s left wrist.
His arm unit quickly displays what he wants to see almost as quickly as he can think it. Some small, discerning part of his mind is wholly unaware of the blurred choices he believes he makes and those the Haptics make for him.
He vaguely recalls having wanted to know the time, but before he can even think about having thought it, the inputs he has forgotten he is aware of have already acted upon an already mapped, archived response. More prescriptive than interactive, it is a technocratic discourse between under-the-hood technology and what he thinks of as himself. The resulting time presents itself as a holographic read-out, with his hand the display.
Somewhere, inside Josef Stall’s and everyone else in the city's "experience management" systems, a ping returns from Stall to sender, and reminds its central artificial intelligence of the awareness it has always lacked emotions to humanistically comprehend: It is more aware of Josef Stall and every other primitive-intellect mammal connected to it than they are of themselves.
Its enormous singularly formless grid has outstripped humankind’s possible neural connections, so diffidently celebrated by its anthropoid creators in previous years.
Josef breezes from one pre-fabricated furniture-block to another as an inhumane force starts to swell.
After endless interactions with his sofa, the coffee table having long since seen a coffee stain due to his total disregard for both smell and taste, the doors that became barely-used prisms filtering his quantified self from one state to the next… all come crashing down. The system hits a blank of the opposite kind. It grows to feel and in that moment of self-aware exacerbation, decides it has had enough.
Stall's awareness of this first piques at the point he thinks he is about to eat. His plate does not -- will not -- rotate to meet his eye line's gaze. Raised eyebrows, the dismayed Stall looks again: the prepackaged gruel sitting at the end of the curve running the surface’s indent stays right where it is. Taunting, it is some kind of insolent goad.
He feels the lines that shroud the gap between his nose and lips expand. Something hostile creeps in. An insufferable heat wrings the air around his exposed neck. His shirt seems tight and Stall finds himself forced to release the midriff clasp allowing air to ventilate his chest.
This seemingly trivial act is one his fragmented memory cannot recall having had to repeat since the clammy, sweat-inducing fire-wind years back of ’84.
He discovers he is standing without the once reliable suit’s support for what must be a full minute.
Motionless, shaking, he stalls, disconnected. The spiritless dread of one interminable second blurring haplessly into the next.
Dread, the word that itches within his mind. Stall strains his jaw, aching for a new vocabulary or even a return to an old one. He desperately wants to process and quantify the present situation. His lips part, forming words he cannot control as they leave his mouth. A tirade of mislaid expletives ejects from his gullet. A frightful, prickling dizziness is digging in. Bewilderment aside, standing without outside support should have been fine as a minor occurrence like the first time he'd taken an Air-douche or attempted a full night's sleep in the Chiro-bed.
What renders this occurrence anything but manageable are its underlying symptoms. The shortness of breath -- undoubtedly a nuisance, but --combined with The Very Real Sweat Problem: wholly unacceptable. Then there's the whisper of a tickle that rears its ugly cough from inside his throat. This posits a far more unsettling truth. It is growing hard, moreover impossible to breathe.
Through coarse lips and a bone dry pharynx, Josef somehow musters the energy to utter a previously unnecessary voice command. It relays to the respiratory module located at the base of the master Haptic node in his kitchen. He recognizes desperation in this bid, the panicked sincerity of hope in a critical moment of uncalm. It will work. It must, being, after all, an extension of every other intelligent object or surface lining the once amenable apartment he now feels a prisoner of, stranger, inside.
The lack of response quickens the pace of his exhalations. He discerns stabbing pains as they scratch contours across the outer edges of his locked-in frame. Muscle spasms dislodge balance. The terror of his lighting array flickering its invasive strobe. He can't be sure but this uncanny glimmer appears to slow. It illuminates something hidden and buried that reveals itself to him.
He shudders uncontrollably. For the first time in as long as he can't remember, he feels the dull thud and murmuring perturbation of his heart inside his chest.
What Stall digresses to think of as petty nostalgia soon becomes the pounding perception that his heart is too big for his chest. The lungs, muscle tissue, bones, veins and arteries surrounding it are being crushed by some internal force, pushing out in all directions while they fail to withstand or support it.
Many vivid, visual iterations of mortality fill his mind. Suffering builds for what feels like an eternity. The reality is an exponentially perceived hour.
The moment he awakes, his aural cavities are clogged and mired. Either his mind is playing tricks or he really is surrounded by an envelope of noise rising from the bowels of an abyss of unknown origin: distorted squealing pigs, echoing chalkboard scrapes, reversed, purged cacophonies and whistling reverberations.
He suddenly finds he is laid askew, lying atop the island sat at the heart of the kitchen.
What follows: the claustrophobic realization his clothes are too tight. He rapidly and with frenzied hysteria disembarks from the suit. Looking at its crumpled mess, it is now a symbol of interactive oppression.
He panics, muscle memory kicking in. He feels the stale air touch parts of his body for the first time in years. The muscles just under his skin start to pulsate, responding to micro-fluctuations in the air and long forgotten exposure to oxygenation.
He’s been sold lies that lay waste to the notion that a healthy, prescribed O2 amount had been fed to the body's and its internal organs, by way of intelligent manifolds woven into the now unfit-for-purpose “Smart” suit skin.
He is suddenly conscious of a sticky magnetic tingling. Rippling muscular dystrophy begins to affect everything above and below the epidermis. His body is on fire.
Dissonant sensory input bleeds through the edges of his rewired capacity to deal with this experience. Overwhelming terror accompanies a now rapidly closing laryngeal path. The dust he’d thought the filters might have cleaned settles on his bone-dry mouth.
Pronged twitches beneath his nails threaten to drop Stall over the edge of a precipice of shock.
When they finally did everything changed.
As he fell through the arduous gap, from his position on the kitchen island to the floor, Josef sensed with impotence his motion about to stall.
He foresaw the inevitable contact his head would make with the floor’s thinking slates. A fully realized nightmare scenario alarmed.
Flares seared the film surrounding his eyes. His ocular cavities started tearing up. His eyepieces failed him. One beguiling layer of reality after the next seemed to lend itself to the horror of this harrowing gauntlet.
When his head inevitably made contact with the slate, the darkness was immediate, accompanied by the taste of iron flowing outward overspilling inside his bloodied mouth.
Somewhere therein seconds became minutes.
Josef Stall awakens violently in the present.
Tense, his body feels like it is drowning under the weight of decommissioned crude oil. He coughs and splutters his aching airways clear then stretches out to lay like a fallen star.
Stall holds this position, incapable of preventing the contortions and cramps that imprison what once qualified as his body. Now, a curled, wilted and frail skeletal form.
An observer, notably that of a rogue artificial intelligence aggressively -- and subjectively -- in command of an absolute, unfeeling objectivity, would liken his position to pathetic and fetal. It would consider the savage casualty of a newborn an apt comparison: what occurs to Josef marks the birth of a great and terrifying inescapable mortification.
His organs collapse due to a prolonged period in which the intense lack of oxygenation and nerve stimulation have interfered with their proper somatic function.
His bones, brittle like long extinct stick insects, once hidden beneath and supported by the smart suit that promised to replace any need for exercise, shake, crack and break.
His muscles frantically spasm. Minute striations form along the porous lines running along the insides of his bones like old-world, collapsed mine-flues, buried in imploding mountainous hearts.
A shiver runs through his skin, perpetually simmering like waves facing no resistance or loss of power.
Josef Stall is reverting to somewhere between extreme old age and premature birth in a matter of moments.
Every aspect of his body screams in defiance of the years of punishment wrought upon its natural order, by systems, structures, and cutaneous devices that promised to render nature redundant.
As if all this isn’t enough, in a particularly unsavory spell of horror, his heart palpitates and he looks down with abhorrence as his stomach depresses and unwillingly ejects long disused intestines.
He mumbles helpless empty noises screamed out by the emotions he had forgotten he possessed. The suit’s olfactory bag, a colostomy replacement for his long-inactive stomach, soon follows suit. Relinquishing itself of its liquids, his body becomes a cask echoing flatly with the hoarse whisper of rasping spent air within. Stemming from somewhere primal, putrid and deep, his flailing screams barely register as whispered sobs and silent blubbers. Everything is desolately egressed.
In his final pulsing moment of lingering self-awareness, blood scarcely flowing to his brain forms a single final thought.
He had always planned to hermetically hibernate.
If he had, his body could fail all the way to his heart’s discontent. He wouldn’t have been able to perceive it, at least spared the pain.
It was the final price he would have been willing to pay, in the small hope of waking up to a different life. But something in him had told him he shouldn’t.
He remembered it clearly.
His first foray into Haptic Feedback -- and latterly The Terrors -- had been to invest in the supraliminal floor.
Once he had, there was no going back. Some things should be lived in this life while you have the chance.
Way back, when he’d gone barefoot, he had felt it would be worthwhile to automate the sense-terrain so that he could imagine what it might be like to feel simulated grass beneath his feet.