Story about something I've been thinking very deeply about for a while now.
“Seeds of rebellion lay outside your front door
If you nourish them and water them they'll grow into a healthy ‘What for?’
And if revolution isn't what's in store,
How can you care anymore?”
- Bad Religion
In the middle of a land where no men travel, there stands a black, monolithic structure that towers over the bleak, empty land surrounding it. Very few are even aware of its existence. Most who are aware know to keep it secret, while the others are simply seen as delusional in their rantings of its mystery and hulking stature, which are shrugged off by others as mere crazy talk. I am here to tell you of this place as neither of the two aforementioned types of people. I am here to report to you my experience of this ominous entity as its only open escapee. This place, for me, was the location of what was to be my final judgment, in which I came to make a final judgment of my own. I speak to you now as an entirely different person than who I was upon entering this building. I see now the line between blessing and curse, between real and fake, between what we are given and what we must make for ourselves. If you are still reading this, you are obviously interested in hearing my story. You are also willing to spend time to do so, time that could be used to enjoy entertainment programs, pray or attend religious services, or work in your chosen profession. You wish to give your time, or possibly your money if you paid to read this, to me and my story in order to have your emotions manipulated, your curiosity quenched. Otherwise, why bother reading it in the first place? Therein lies a mere part of the circle we are all bound to. The joke we all are and forever will be at the end of.
A short story by Matt Herzog
I do not actually remember my voyage to the black building, but it was there that I woke up in captivity. Light beamed into my pitch black cell as two guards slowly pulled the door open. They then escorted me into a large elevator, its walls and surface smooth and metallic. The elevator kickstarted with an upward force I had not experienced before. The elevator began to move faster and faster as it hummed louder and louder and light creeping through its doors from each individual floor began to become a blur. The guards, made faceless by their black masks, held a constant, firm embrace on me, ensuring I made not the slightest movement. I had no plans to do so. There was no reason to at this point. My situation was, in and of itself, the end of the line.
The elevator came to a sudden stop. Its doors slid open smoothly. In front of me was a long, dark hallway adorned with nothing at all. It was as I was being escorted through it that I finally came to accept that this would be the final major event in my life. Whether I was to be killed or forever imprisoned, this would be the last thing I would remember and there was nothing I could do about it. But still, I made no attempt to express these sentiments, mostly out of complete and utter helplessness. I was frightened as hell.
We approached a door at the end of hallway and a guard entered a code in order to pass. The doors slid open slowly. I was then led in and shoved into a chair, which the two guards then restrained me to.
In front of me was a large balcony, on which three podiums stood. In the middle was a very large one, with two smaller ones on either side of it. At each podium, one man sat. The lack of light made their faces almost completely indistinguishable.
“You may stand down,” the voice of the man on the left boomed authoritatively. The guards then promptly backed away from me and stood near the door. There was silence for quite some time after that. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I simply resorted to staring at the floor beneath me. I could not bring myself to look upon my judges as I sat there shaking and sweating.
“You know why you are here, do you not?” the middle one finally said. His voice was cold and commanding as it boomed down from the top of his podium.
“Y-y-y-yes,” I stuttered pathetically.
And I did know why I was there. In recent years, a man grew to infamy in the minds of countless people of all lands. To many he was a terrorist. To others he was a revolutionary. The name of this man was not known, he was simply referred to as the renegade. The renegade and his followers were devoted to one purpose: bringing down the system and reforming society as we knew it. Months before, he began to contact me indirectly. Why me? I to this day have not the slightest clue. His messages to me contained requests to do very small tasks for him. These tasks seemed like nothing out of the ordinary or illegal and were rather simple and easy to follow. Part of me wanted not to ever associate with such an infamous figure in the slightest, but another part of me wanted to indulge my curiosity. I wanted the rush of doing something that the society around me would not dare have any of its members do. I wanted to live by my own code for once, and I had no reason to despise or disrespect this man personally as much as those around me did. It was for that reason that I ended up in the situation I was placed in.
The man at the highest podium paused. “You have been keeping in contact with a known enemy of the state,” he declared, “The most dangerous of these kinds of people, to be precise, known to have broken almost every single major law we have written. You have been doing favors for him, though there is no clear link between the two of you and no clear grand scheme that these favors were put towards.” He leaned forward, his face slowly inching into the light. “So I ask again. Do you know why you are here?”
I frantically shook my head. “No, no I guess I don’t.”
“You guess!?” the voice of the man on the right boomed. “Do you wish to add perjury to your list of offenses?”
“No, sir, I just—“
“Then you will tell us immediately any information you have about your relationship with this man!”
I did all I could. I told them the truth. I knew nothing, and they did not believe me. All I was trying to do was concede to their wishes and end this ordeal as quickly as possible, but they continued to demand answers I simply did not have, threatening me with torture. It reached a point where I simply did not care anymore. I was willing to say anything.
“I DO NOT KNOW WHY I WAS CHOSEN OR WHAT I WAS DOING!” I screamed in a frightened rage, tears in my eyes. “MAYBE THE RENEGADE’S TASKS WERE FOR THE PURPOSE OF BUILDING HIS TRUST BEFORE USING ME FOR SOME HIGHER MOTIVE! WHY!? I DO NOT HAVE THE SLIGHTEST—!”
My voice was cut off as the room suddenly shook around us. All of us sat perfectly still in silence as we began to hear very dull and muffled, yet distinguished sounds. Booming sounds. Firing sounds. They were growing louder and louder.
An air of confusion and panic filled the room. The man on the left uttered a phrase in a certain militaristic vernacular that I had never heard before, at which point the two guards standing near the door promptly exited the room, firearms drawn. As the door behind me opened, the sounds became clearer. It was the sound of combat, and it was drawing closer and closer. More light entered the room for that brief moment, and I was able to faintly see upon the faces of my judges a faint semblance of that same feeling of doom I felt just moments ago.
The door closed and sealed itself shut. All we could do was wait as the sounds of two opposing forces violently clashing drew nearer and nearer until suddenly they stopped. We all sat perfectly still. None of us knew what to make of this. After a few minutes, the door behind me had opened. The three men sprang from their thrones and began to flee.
“Don’t move,” a new voice commanded from behind me.
The three men froze where they were standing and put their hands up.
“Over here. On your knees.”
The three men did as they were told. They lined up in front of the podiums at which they were once sitting and slowly began to get on their knees, their hands behind their heads. Now clearly visible, the three men looked far older than I had imagined them to be. Their expressions were now stoic and emotionless.
Foreign hands reached towards the restraints that bound me to the chair I was sitting in and unlocked them. Now free from what bound me, I turned around to the see the man that had freed me. His face looked worn and scarred, with a short beard that covered most of it. He was armed to the teeth with weaponry of all sorts. Several others dressed similarly stood outside the doorway. He did not even have to speak. I knew who he was. This was the man that had been sending me messages for the past few months. And now he was breaking me out of captivity.
The renegade holstered his weapon and extended his hand. I shook it. “Thank you,” he said.
“Why?” I asked nervously, desperate for answers.
“Everything you did for us,” he responded, “I asked you to do so that we could keep track of you, know your location at all times. And you’ve done it. You’ve led us here.”
“But why me?”
“It had to be someone, didn’t it? But it doesn’t matter now. Thanks to you, we’ve now been granted access to the pinnacle of evil and corruption. And now we’re going to bring it down on its head.”
“The pinnacle of evil and corruption? What exactly is this place? Who are these people?” I gestured toward the three kneeling judges, their faces sterner than ever.
The renegade gave me a look that shared my sentiment that there was a great deal of things I still needed to learn. “Me and the rest of us need to work on destroying this stronghold. We have enough explosives to take down this entire place and we still need to finish rigging this building to blow soon. In the meantime…”
He reached for his holstered weapon and handed it to me. I was not used to the cold, steel feeling in the palm of my hand.
“I’m going to give you some time to get to know the men that put you here.”
He began to walk out the door to meet with his followers to finish preparing the building for destruction.
“I’ll be back soon,” he said as the doors slid shut behind him and I was once again left in the silent, dark room. I turned to look upon the three kneeling men in front of me, gripping the weapon in my hand. A new feeling surged through me. I felt victorious. Power was in my hands now. I walked up to the man furthest to the left. I pressed the weapon against his head.
“Who are you?” I asked coldly.
The man was silent for a few moments before he looked straight into my eyes very seriously, as if he were really trying to tell me something.
“You may not know me,” he said, “but you know my work very well. I oversee the manipulation of human emotion. I am in control of all mediums through which ideas, emotions, and desires are instilled in the minds of humanity. News. Advertisements. Entertainment programs of all kinds. I see that they work to keep the minds of humanity under control for the sake of the system. I have designed the manipulation of human emotion under the guise of entertainment in order to keep as many as possible tuning in as often as possible. I control the desires of man, controlling what they want and think they want. I am in control of the information they receive, ensuring that it provokes the desired reactions and shifts attention away from what we do. I do all of these things for the same reason: for the profit and benefit of the system.”
I continued to stare at him in silence. I was not expecting, nor did I know what to make of the man’s long, enigmatic answer. However, most of my lack of understanding came from my own outright denial of what he was telling me. I did not quite know how to react.
Hoping for a clearer understanding, I moved to the man on the right, asking him the same question. He too looked at me and began to speak.
“It is my duty to keep the actions and decisions of man civilized and in balance with our system purely out of their own concern for what they believe to be their immortal souls. I work to ensure that, no matter whatever deity or deities they choose to put their faith in, that humans are made to follow a moral code that goes in accordance with the smooth operation of our system that they will, in turn, follow out of their desire not to displease said deity or deities and therefore, as they would believe, significantly diminish the quality of their eternal afterlife. I also see that this desire to be seen as worthy of salvation through one’s actions in life be applied to all necessary situations in the world, including but not limited to political decisions. I too do this for the profit and benefit of the system.”
My heart sank. It suddenly occurred to me the grandness of the scale of what I was up against. In a state of shock, I moved to the man in the middle, who I had deliberately saved for last, seeing that he seemed to be the most important. He too began to speak.
“My work has been to see that all humans maintain their positions as worker bees. I designed the system to be this way. Children go to school to receive grades. These grades come from doing one thing and one thing only: following orders. They receive assignments and are expected to do them to the best of their ability. Their intelligence is never part of the equation, only their willingness to follow said orders. They will eventually come to a point where they will continue this method of education in a field of their choosing, where they will again be graded by how well they followed orders. When it comes time for them to seek a profession, they are employed on the basis of how well they previously followed orders throughout their lives so that they can continue to follow orders, this time for payment. Because of this, they are locked in and therefore must work to provide a life for themselves and/or their families. Over time, they save up enough of their payment for following orders to finally be able to retire from their professions and live freely, usually at just the time in their lives when their physical conditions have deteriorated, their services are no longer needed, and they are able to be replaced by younger, more able-bodied workers, keeping the cycle constantly moving. I do this for the profit and benefit of the system.”
I pulled the weapon away from the man’s head. I did not understand. I backed away and collapsed to the floor, my back propped against the base of the chair I was once restrained to. My world began to crash around me. Suddenly, everything I had known about the world just became one big lie. It would have been easy to just dismiss everything the three men said as false, but something in the way they proclaimed it and their authoritative stature told me that it was indeed the truth.
“So that’s it?” I asked, eyes wide open in a state of shock. “You crafted everything keeping all people in line?”
“I’m afraid so,” the man in the middle replied.
“You control everyone just for the sake of your little system!? Is nothing genuine!?”
“Only the components of human nature that our system exploits. Desire to feel. Curiosity of the unknown. Will to live. Self-preservation. That is what allows the system to thrive.”
I sat there in silence as what the man was telling me began to sink in. “The renegade is right,” I finally said, “you all deserve to die.”
“No,” the man in the middle responded, “you do not understand.”
I quickly stood back up and pointed the weapon back in his face. “You enslave the minds of people everywhere!” I shouted, “What more is there to understand!?”
“More than you know. Our system is much more than the tyrannical device which you perceive it to be.”
“You abuse your power, exercising it to use humans as sheep! That’s tyranny!”
“It is civilization!”
I paused, confused by the man’s response. “What do you mean by that?”
“Do you honestly believe that the human race could ever thrive with its natural mindset? Humans need systems of government and law in order to transcend the course of nature and remain on this planet, or else be doomed to never escape the realm of savagery, being among any number of species that were there one minute and gone the next. This much is common knowledge, but governments and laws sometimes are not enough. Governments can fail to serve or control their people. They can even be composed of corrupt people, sometimes failing completely, leading once again to savagery. More control is needed. The minds of the people must work in accordance with the purpose of government. They must be made to crave the manipulation of their emotions in order for the desire to consume and therefore stimulate the government to be implemented. They must be motivated to follow a moral code that reflects a similar concern for the well being of government, just as a government’s own laws do. They must be molded into effective workers and be motivated to work and serve the government as well as its people for the prime years of their lives. In the end, these are all steps to keeping the human species going strong.”
“But do you really need to deprive people of their free will!? We all have a right to that!”
“But we do not deprive people of their free will entirely, that is what allows the system to work. Despite all the means by which humans are kept under control, the semblance of choices to be made is still intact, leaving one unable to realize that they are being controlled as much as they are. Besides, complete free will is a danger to the system. I think we all would like to believe what you believe, that the human race is capable of survival simply out of concern for one’s fellow man, but this is simply not true. Self-preservation. Survival of the fittest. The supreme law of nature. While we may now see ourselves as higher than this kind of ideology, it is still implemented in all of us. It is our instinct. While humans can genuinely care for others, at our core, we all collectively possess greed and concern for oneself to a certain degree, and sadly, history has proven that these traits precede those of empathy in the end. That is why the three of us and our system must exist. We continue to work to make advances to control humanity. To protect it from itself. It is the only way we can survive.”
The man stopped. He needed to say no more. At this point, my mind was completely torn. All at once, I felt confusion toward my newfound realizations, anger toward the tyrannical manner in which the three men ran their system, horror upon realizing elements of truth to what the man had to say, and outrage at my own self for even coming to accept such things to be true. I continued to stand there, stuck in limbo, my face buried in my hand. I said nothing. There was nothing I could think to say.
“This is why we can’t allow men like the renegade to wreak havoc upon the system,” the man continued. “People like him view our system as evil and corrupt, seeing things from only one side, and will stop at nothing to bring it down. Such behavior cannot be allowed to prevail and it is our duty to stop it. Also, the system is not perfect. We are here to continuously work to improve it and ensure the long-term existence of humanity. Now it is natural to feel –”
The man was cut off by several loud bursts of gunfire, seemingly very close by. Silence. More very close gunshots. More silence. I stood there, still confused. The men did not budge. I turned to face the door. After a few seconds of anxious waiting, the door slid open.
The renegade was leaving large, dark streaks of blood across the floor as he crawled desperately into the room. As he shook in anguish from his wounds, I merely stood in place dumbly. All of which had transpired in the last couple of minutes was far too much for me to take in. As the dying man approached me, I looked back to examine the faces of the three men. Their expressions remained unchanged.
The renegade collapsed at my feet, coughing and spitting up blood. He grabbed onto my leg, pulling himself up to look at me, his face stricken with a ghastly pallor from blood loss. As his eyes stared firmly into mine, he tried to speak, but the sounds he emitted never transcended the decipherability of an agonized, croaky whisper. I leaned down to better hear him, and in a cold stutter, the words finally came.
“W-w-we’re…all gone…Leave…n-now…y-you know w-what…to d-d-do…”
It was at this moment that the man lurched downward, his hand reaching for mine, clenching it tightly. As he held it in a firm grasp, I felt him slip something into the palm of my hand. He continued to clutch it in a strong vice as his body slumped further and further back toward the ground. Then, slowly, I began to feel the life slowly fade from his grip. His hand let go of mine, and his body slid down and lifelessly thudded against the floor. I lifted my now crimson hand slowly, and in it laid a small, rectangular box, smudged with blood. I flipped open a compartment of the box and in it was a small metallic switch. With his dying breath, the renegade had left me with a detonator. His final wish was that I be the one to bring this building to its crumbling oblivion.
I stood there in place, in an entranced state . Detonator in my hand. The dead body of the renegade at my feet. The haunting gaze of the three judges at my back. On opposite sides of me I could feel two great forces pulling at me, one without which the other could not exist, trying to bring me to their side.
I turned back around to face the judges. They did not even need to speak. I was met with cold stares that said exactly what the renegade had told me mere seconds earlier: that I knew what to do. Both sides trusted me with doing the right thing, and the power was in my hands now. I slowly turned back around and began to walk toward the door. I finally passed through it and into the hallway, turning to make sure that the doors closed behind me. For the last second that I saw my judges, they had still made no attempt to get up and escape. I stared into the eyes of the judge in the middle as the three of them remained in their exact positions until the doors slid shut and they were permanently cut off from my view.
The once empty hallway I had walked down to get here not long ago was now littered with the corpses of both guards working for the judges and members of the renegade’s resistance. The walls were splashed with blood and riddled with bullet holes. I began to make my way down it and back toward the elevator that brought me here, the remote still in my hand. As I reached the end of the hallway, I pressed a small, metallic button on the wall, which opened the doors of the elevator. As its doors inched open I slowly saw that it too was littered with blood and bullet-filled bodies of the renegade’s comrades. This must have been the only way to get to or away from this floor, and I was about to use it again. It was no wonder why the judges had made no attempt to escape.
I took the elevator down to the ground floor and stepped into a large, empty room that resembled a lobby. At the far end of it was a single door. I made my way to it and opened it.
Finally. I felt the warm beams of sunlight upon my face. I saw the light of day. The empty landscape surrounding the building. Total nothingness. I needed to make my way back to civilization. I walked far off into the barren land, eventually turning to face the building once more. Its hulking stature was evermore clear, as the thick, black, massive structure jutted from the earth and towered over all things surrounding it. I took a moment to marvel at it. Slowly, my finger began to move toward the switch of the detonator the renegade had given me until it was resting on it, waiting for the moment of action.
It was then that I saw it.
I saw the building come crumbling down.
I saw the smoke clouds billowing from its base.
I saw the mountain of smoldering rubble.
I saw the revolution.
The embodiment of tyranny coming crashing to the ground.
The masses of people celebrating in the streets.
The cheering victory of the resistance.
The end of the control and the destruction of the bonds of the machine.
The flourishing of genuineness.
I saw the confusion in the eyes of man.
The paranoia and overwhelming new responsibility.
The masses of people rioting in the streets.
The destruction of homes.
The utter disregard for fellow man.
The weeping innocents.
The widespread chaos.
The end of humanity.
The posthumous laughter of the machine.
The tower still stood over me just as tall as before. I dug my foot into the loose earth beneath me, forming a small makeshift hole. I stood over the hole and dropped it. It was there that I buried the detonator. The end of much more than just human control. The seed of resistance left to be found another day by another soul plagued with unrest.
A man has complete and total freedom. He is free to believe in any ideology of his own creation and act on it as he pleases. Everything he needs he must make for himself. He is bound to no controlling force.
However, he also lives in comfort. He is able to easily attain his needs and wants. He lives without constant fear. He lives without paranoia. He believes he knows the answers to unknown aspects of life and the universe and finds solace in this. He believes he has purpose. He coexists peacefully with fellow members of his species and together they prosper.
He is nonexistent.