S-Hell

Marion Cheshunt's finished work at the Post Office and been to the shops and is walking back up the steep road towards her block of flats when the familiar VWOMP VWOMP pressure-buzz begins humming in her ears and the darkening sky over the city begins flashing red like an alarm.

She turns and looks up and tries to judge which part of the city has been targeted this time and spots that the nearest edge of the flashing red mile-wide aerial rectangle is almost directly above her. She clutches the plastic carrier bags and hurries up the hill as fast as stumpy middle-aged legs and smoky middle-aged lungs can carry her. VWOMP VWOMP. VWOMP VWOMP.

Then the translucent red shield smashes into existence, enclosing the cuboidal target sector of the city on all sides and from above, from ground level up to half a mile in the air. Marion's heel is still fractionally inside the quarantined sector when the shield comes up and receives a sharp electrical sting for her trouble. She falls, and drops one bag of shopping, but forces herself to resist the instinct to grab after the groceries as they roll back down the pavement into the forbidden zone. Inanimate objects can pass through the shield, but people can't.

The shield could have been black, or white, or invisible, but red is the scariest and sends the most powerful message. It could have been opaque, and soundproof, but it is important that people outside are able to see and hear what happens inside. From the hill, Marion has a great vantage point, something she would dearly like to do without. Behind her, inside the shield, the red ceiling has begun to bubble downwards, and begins to drip hundreds of things onto the city, like water droplets from a half-turned-on shower head. The things have no visible form of flight capability but nevertheless can fly, and whatever drives their flight must be some noisy electric motor because even from this distance, at least half a mile, Marion can hear them buzzing like wasps and chainsaws. They look more like spiders than insects and once they hit the ground they scuttle like spiders too, seeking out and occupying a specific twenty-storey block of flats, turning it black on every surface, inside and out. Elsewhere, three or four simultaneous deafening explosions ring out, placed in the centre of busy streets rather than hitting any potentially useful buildings. Elsewhere, thick black acidic stuff bubbles up out of the drains and briefly floods a street or two, clutching at a few people's feet and dragging them, thrashing against the tar, back down where it came from. Clashing sirens sound and flashing lights whirl and abstract oppressive text ("SICK", "OBEY", "TERROR") flashes on streets and walls and on the sky.

And so on. This is the way it works, if "works" is the term. The number of people actually killed will be very small, and limited to the relatively well-known, the heroic or the most beloved, for maximum emotional impact. At this stage in the process, if, again, "process" is the term, the truly great and the good, those who touched thousands or millions of lives, are all long since culled, and the System or the Project or the Cube or whatever it is called is down to the few remaining faintly influential businesspeople, a handful of respected doctors and nurses and community workers, and the parents of relatively big families. Anybody who's publicly voiced any kind of coherent theory about what's happening is dead, but rumour spreads and the more plausible theories gain unavoidable traction.

The facts: as of three and a half years ago, a hundred-and-fifty-kilometre cube of steel encloses northern and central England, interlocked through it at a slight angle, as if the universe's collision detection was momentarily put on hold while an oversized hollow Borg cube was falling through the world. Atmospheric interference and the curvature of the Earth make the walls invisible from more than a few miles away, and likewise the true ceiling of the world is too far up to see. The dull orange Day-Star is probably an artificial construct (or one of several) suspended inside the thing, moving on tracks, a half-hearted replacement for the real, obscured Sun. The square-ish perimeter where the cube intersects the ground is fenced off with electrified barbed wire and anything which gets past the wire explodes on contact with the steel cube itself, whether on foot or airborne. There is no outside contact. There is no drilling through the base of the cube. Any organised group attempting to accomplish either of these feats is erased from the top down. The interior is divided into arbitrary segments, mostly cuboidal, and routinely convulses under hideous events like the ones just seen, which reverse themselves and disappear as quickly as they came.

The theory: it is an experiment in fear, an experiment to drive living humans to breaking point with terror and emotional torture. It is being carried out by an insane all-powerful human or alien or demon or computer (or in any case, monster). It is being carried out by an individual or individuals with no competence and no conception of the scientific process, who is/are either forgetful or stupid or intolerably sadistic or both (but in any case, creative).

Marion, still with her other two carrier bags full of shopping, hurries up past several terraced houses and finds a side alley which leads behind them, providing access to three or four back doors and back gardens. She ducks in there, where she can't see the big red cube and the noise is dulled, and waits there panting and praying. It is an especially long one, more than twenty minutes. After everything shuts off and Marion thinks it is over and it is safe to come out, there is another VWOMP VWOMP and the events resume for another sixty seconds. The little "coda" is an infrequent occurrence. It only happens when quite a lot of people are hiding and reacting badly.

Marion has lived through nearly two dozen such events herself. There are still psychologists in this miniature world, but she has never been one to raise fuss by going to see them-- they are overworked and distraught and fighting a losing battle and don't need her adding to their problems. If she had gone to see one, they'd diagnose her with a jumble of any number of stress disorders, which she'd dismiss, before refusing to take the pills. The British are made of stern, practical stuff, Marion says. It's not so bad, once you get used to it. (You will never be permitted to get used to it.) At fifty-one, overweight and without a lot of exercise, her heart will give out within two or three more red cube events.

Or perhaps not. She gets to the top of the hill and slogs down the other side a little way and then turns right and into her block of flats. She eschews the lift, not that it's working. Even if it was, and even if you aren't claustrophobic (which she isn't), a stuck lift car is one of the worst places to experience a red cube drop. There is no place that they can't get to you -- they can and will pass through walls. She climbs nine storeys, stopping for a rest at the third and again at the sixth. Time was she managed it with only one stop, and that was carrying four bags of shopping. She unlocks her flat and goes in.

Inside there are three men, wearing serious black armour and headsets, of the kind worn by highly organised military types. Despite several comfortable (if worn) chairs, all three are standing, waiting. "Marion," says the one to the far right, nearest the door.

The most surprising thing about this apparition is how conventional and unthreatening it is. She turns right and puts down her bags in the tiny yellowing kitchen. She opens up the tiny slightly-malfunctioning freezer and puts the frozen food in it before it defrosts any further. The third man soon comes around the corner and confronts her as she is putting the kettle on. "Marion."

"Would you like some tea?"

"Marion, do you remember the day you were born?"

"August the first, two thousand," she says. "Why, do I look under age to be buying alcohol?"

"But you don't remember what happened on that day. Didn't your mother, Crystal Juliette Minten, tell you what happened a few days after you were born?"

"What do you want?"

"...That's going to take a few minutes to explain. You had an operation, did your mother tell you this? At three days old they were worried about something being wrong with your heart so you had an operation. You were so small. You were right as rain and never had another operation again. You don't even have a scar anymore. Then when your son, Alastair Sidney Cheshunt, was born, on the thirty-first of October two thousand and twenty, something similar happened to him. He was taken away and operated on and brought back. Same as you. Same as everybody else in the System. One... uh. One sugar. No milk. Thanks." The man gingerly takes a sip and it turns out to be surprisingly good tea.

That there is still tea in this closed universe is an anomaly which still hasn't occurred to anybody inside it. The same is true of the weather which is still temperate and windy and rainy just like northern England always was, despite being physically disconnected from the meteorological systems of the greater planet Earth. These facts are not inexplicable. The three men know.

"I haven't seen Alastair since the walls came down. He lives in Edinburgh. He is probably married to his nice young lady by now. I'm sure they make a lovely couple still."

"Yes... yes, Marion, Alastair's doing okay." The man follows Marion into the lounge and lets her sit in the most comfortable chair. The other two men are still standing there, alert. Teacup and saucer in hand, the man makes a brief signal to the other two, a signal which says, "Take it slowly. If we rush it, we'll break her completely." And they seem to understand. "Marion--"

The universe begins flashing.

"Shit. Treat her! Marion, give me your tea. NOW!" Withdrawn defensively into the big comfy chair, Marion obliges. The first man takes both cups of tea into the kitchen and empties them while the other two produce an array of instruments. "Marion! Marion, look into this, please."

She whispers, crying, "Oh, God, not again!"

"No, Marion. Not again. Look into this, please. You know how covering your ears doesn't work? You know how covering your eyes doesn't work? Do you know what Augmented Reality is?"

The second man rapidly sets a crown of electrical equipment around Marion's head and the third man has already unfolded a portable computer from a suitcase. "The fact that you can see us means the first part of the plan worked," the first man explains. "Your mum's okay. And Alastair's okay. And even Darren's okay."

"Darren?" Tears well up.

"Yes. Darren's okay. He's been trying to help you. Since this all began. Eyes open. And listen."

Red and yellow and black insectoid strobes dominate Marion Cheshunt's vision. The walls begin to crawl and close in around her. And then they flicker and turn white. Not the dull, tarry cream colour they used to be. They whiten up, and outside the dull, unwashed window is a purer Sun. She squints, focusing on a small rectangular video screen held by the third man in front of her eyes, upon which her nightmare is still playing out. She is still in her flat, and still in her chair. Her shopping is in the kitchen and the men are there and the teacups are on the draining board. It's reality. But brighter. And no nightmare.

"They're inside your optic nerve, your auditory nerve, and your haptic nerve centres," the first man explains. "And everybody's. Since years ago. Years. It's a trick of the light. Augmented eyeballs. It can make you see anything it wants."

Marion raises a disbelieving finger at the wild events on the flat panel screen. The third man takes it away and folds it back into his briefcase. The second man removes the disruption equipment from her head. "What happened?"

"There is no nightmare. There's a wild computer System, we're still not sure where it's based or what its basic motivations are. It's the most virulent and powerful monster humanity ever created and it's tapped into the AR network of four industrialised nations, including the UK. You live in the real world, and always have. A real world overlaying the other, real real world. A world we couldn't even approach electronically. It was like a blizzard. A robotic storm which nobody could get near. But we're here now. We're working on it."

"Are you... Ally?"

"No. But he's got a plan. Now come with us."

Discussion (14)

2010-11-15 23:26:34 by qntm:

2175 words. Running total is 29259 words. I had a hard time picking a good title for this but the rest was pretty straightforward. This arises from discussions with friends of mine at work regarding augmented reality. The basic idea is that if you had computer access to everybody's eyeballs, you could make them see things that weren't there and they would have no idea that they weren't there - i.e. turn the real world into a virtual AR nightmare. (Alternatively, you could make people NOT see things which WERE there, but that felt too similar to The Matrix for me.)

2010-11-15 23:33:10 by qntm:

Fun suggestion: the three men who are supposedly trying to help Marion are just another form of emotional torture created by the System! This story is also partially inspired by the insane artificial intelligence A.M. from the story I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, although the precise nature of the computer (if it is a computer) behind everything is not explicitly revealed and it might not be a computer at all.

2010-11-16 01:52:06 by JeremyBowers:

I won't ask what it is, I know better than that :), but I will ask, do <i>you</i> know what it is, Sam? (And I won't complain if you ignore this question.)

2010-11-16 03:00:15 by LabrynianRebel:

Blame it on the Sun :P

2010-11-16 05:15:09 by AndrewG:

Reading your comments, I am getting the impression that the opening was not supposed to seem like an incoming game from Reboot. The second paragraph had me thinking we were going to follow the story of a biome who suffered in a hellish and twisted game on a server taken over by an A.M.-like virus. Your design is far scarier, though, and it certainly outclasses the cheap villainy of the show. After adding in a dash of Cube (2: Hypercube?) and the Matrix, this seems like the perfect thought of existential terror to go to sleep to. Excellent short, and thanks for your consistent efforts!

2010-11-16 20:56:19 by DanielC:

I love the setting. There's a certain something about sci-fi set in Britain.

2010-11-17 07:42:38 by Ross:

"Cuboidal"? What's wrong with "cubic"?

2010-11-17 08:27:15 by qntm:

Not all the segments of the world are cubic.

2010-11-17 18:43:40 by atomicthumbs:

What was the operation? I don't get that bit. What's Marion's significance in all of this? (I have loved each and every one of these stories so far :D)

2014-03-14 21:38:35 by Adam:

Why "S-hell?" Is it a reference to s-expressions? Or "shell"?

2018-10-04 04:34:28 by tahrey:

And, of course, the "not seeing things that ARE there" bit has been nicked by Black Mirror...

2020-04-22 00:55:16 by Test:

Test

2020-11-21 21:31:40 by skztr:

I just noticed the name "Marion", is that just a name you like, or did this idea evolve into There Is No Antimemetics Division over time?

2020-11-21 22:09:19 by qntm:

No clue. It just strikes me as a mumsy sort of name.

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