He had to wake up.
Fighting, thrashing, gasping into consciousness, Frank Brule found himself sealed inside a plastic bag. He tore at it, pinching and twisting the thin smoothness, but it wouldn't tear, wouldn't split, wouldn't stretch.
Aaaaa! The scream lodged in his parched throat.
Calm down, Frank, he told himself, you'll use up your air if you keep panicking like an animal. Think, Frank.
Something about an inquiry into his SR status came to mind. The Review Committee, and a plea. . .I had to plea. . . But his brain was clogged with whatever drug they put him under with, and the micromonitor above his left kidney was flushing him with stimulants and nootropics. It was a damn good thing he'd had the monitor installed in the Philippines, illicitly, or the Committee might have known.
At that instant a droning chorus of electric motors jerked the floor beneath him forward. He rolled cautiously, quietly from side to side; kicked up, out, down. He seemed to be moving along a narrow tunnel, metal on all sides. The floor stopped advancing. His breath came short and hot, slickening the plastic he held away from his face; sweat pooled beneath him. I've got to get out of this bag! He contorted himself within the confined space, groping for his right shoe. Digging his fingernails into the underside of the heel, he pulled furiously at the leather until it popped loose. Ha.
Frank was a short man, about forty, who liked to wear silk suits that snugly tucked his flab into neat, firm lines. He wore elevator heals to obtain a height that made business deals easier, liaisons more congenial, and power fits more noteworthy. Underneath those heals sharp tacks protruded from the soles of his shoes. He used them now to fray his prison, kicking long rips into the metalized polymer; grunt, kick, grunt. Quiet! Don't let them know you're awake, Frank. Don't let them know you outwitted them, not yet. Later.
When he finally broke through, a dry, warm wind spilled onto him.
Thank— but no, he wasn't a religious man.
He pulled the bag over his head and pushed it to one side. It was dark. He tried to sit up and slammed his balding head into unforgiving metal.
Damn it. The floor lunged forward again, thudding him onto his back. Where in hell am I?
Frank wasn't a criminal or destructive person. In truth, he could recall only one instance where he'd done something overtly careless. He was driving his NMB (Nissan-Mercedes-Benz) C9400es about twice the speed limit on a rural road in upstate New York. Flying over the pavement, Bach's Concerto in D minor for Harpsichord blaring around him with DBX concave sound enhancement, his consciousness rose blissfully into nirvana. The country joy ride was a regular thing for him. Suddenly a golden retriever burst into the road. Frank braked hastily, swerved—but retrievers are dumb, and this one plunged right into the NMB's seamless grill. Thud, yelp, thud, thud, screech, roar, and Frank was off again. He saw a man in gray overalls bound onto the road behind him, waving frantically.
After a warning—apparently the gray-overalled hick had caught his license number—and a small fine, Frank soon forgot all about the dog and the spoiled ecstasy of that country drive.
His outstretched hand touched more plastic, and something soft and pliable within. He groped further, finding a foot, then another foot, then up meaty legs to a large belly. The corpse felt naked and clammy—destined for. . .? Where's this thing taking me, anyway? Must be some kind of storage. He tried to climb over the body, but the bulk of it choked the narrow passage, wedging him between steel and cool, bulging death.
In a panicked squirm he withdrew and reconsidered. I've got to get back that way, who knows where this thing leads. The floor lunged forward again, impaling his face on a large toe. Don't yell, don't curse, just keep quiet and think.
Big money liked Frank, because Frank made them big money. Fifteen years ago he introduced the MWI (Matsushita-Warner-Immunex) Board of Directors to his new invention.
"Now, just relax and enjoy the film. It's short, but funny. You'll like it I think," he told them. He was nervous, and his hands shook slightly as he passed around the gum, soft-drinks and candy.
"Do we have to eat this crap?" a greying Asian man asked.
"Not if you don't want to," Frank said hastily, but no one seemed to notice. He watched the ones who didn't partake, because he'd need them later.
Frank ran the promo film, a small investment for the return he expected, and the beaches of southern France shone white, warm and lively in a season of poor third-quarter earnings for the mega-conglomerate MWI. The film was a slapstick comedy, crude and ridiculous, but some of the directors laughed; one woman knocked over her drink. He mopped it up quickly, then the short was over.
"I don't see the point, Mr. Brule," someone asked, "you said you had an advertising tool."
"Please bear with me," he said, and walked around the room retrieving wrappers and half-empty cups. "Please put the gum in here, too," he said. With a grimace of distaste, they spit their gum into the bag. An occasional eyebrow went up expectantly; some of them were guessing, he knew.
"Now, you three: Mr. Tohita, Ms. Gravenport, and Mr. Sheldon, did not eat any of the, uh, junk food, correct?"
"Good. You'll be the control group." He passed out cups of water to everyone, and asked them not to drink. They looked at their cups curiously.
"Now," he said, "each in turn, please drink the whole cup of water, and pay attention to the taste, please. Then wait about thirty seconds and see if you. . .notice anything."
The first person complied, and after about thirty seconds she smiled, turned red, and giggled into her hand. Others laughed nervously, but, of course:
"Now, wait a minute!" Tohita bellowed, "I don't want any drugs—"
"Mr. Tohita, there is nothing in that cup that will alter your mental, emotional, or physical state. Please, won't you be next?" He was being bold, he knew, but this Tohita had an ego problem.
"Humph!" The man swiped his cup off the table so angrily he almost spilled it on his neighbor. He drank. They waited. Nothing happened.
"You see?" Frank looked around the room. Tohita looked at his cup. "Please, continue drinking," Frank said.
After about five minutes it became clear what was happening. The Board members who most enjoyed the film laughed loudly, and those who didn't eat the junk food during the film remained calm and curious. The water, of course, tasted like water.
"I'm beginning to see the effect," Tohita grinned.
"Yes," Ms. Ingen seconded, "you've conditioned our response, but how?"
Murmurs of excitement.
Frank took the moment and ran. "What you all know is that people have always been susceptible to conditioning," he said, "and industry has used that to its advantage consistently. But what you've just experienced was instantaneous conditioning, replacing months of advertising—and the incurred cost—with a swift, harmless, relatively inexpensive drug." He paused.
"So it is a drug?" Ms. Ingen looked banefully into her cup.
"Yes, it's called PD5, and it's completely safe. As you saw, it has no effect on an unconditioned subject, but the conditioned effect is additive: images and emotions play themselves over again in the subject's mind, reinforcing the initial stimulus with each dose."
"But how can we control what the 'subject' sees first?" Mr. Sheldon asked. "What if they consume your drug during a horror film?"
Frank was ready for that. "Actually, there can be many such stimuli overlapping each other; multiple conditioning, if you will. Reinforcements are triggered by the subject's predisposition: if someone wishes for a vacation while they're eating a FitSnak, PD5 facilitates a memory of travel advertisements, and so on."
"That's astonishing," Sheldon said. The others nodded.
"Really," Frank went on, "any combination of responses can be obtained with my product, operating on the same triggers commercial advertising has used for years. Now, here are the numbers you requested."
Frank switched on the projector.
"Pheridon Dextrate 5 is the first preservative of its kind, boasting low cost, ease of transport, and rapid batch production. PD5 increases current shelf-life of perishable goods by some thirty-five percent, with the added benefits you've already experienced. . ." And so it went, over the stirring backdrop of Holst's The Planets, flashing pictures of Babe Ruths and popcorn, softdrinks and FitSnaks, and a hundred other well-established products. Then came profit forecasts, and oh, how their eyes glazed over when they saw those. On the sale of PD5 as a preservative alone the sales kept climbing. . . then, as MWI gained increasing control over the food industry, profits soared even higher.
Frank cut the biggest deal of his life that afternoon. Five years later he was a multi-millionaire.
His retreat blocked by the large corpse, Frank scrambled over the smaller bodies in the opposite direction—the direction in which the conveyor sporadically moved. There has to be a door, an access hatch , something. He peered ahead and felt along the walls and ceiling. Only smooth metal. As he hurried on, his nail-spiked heal tore a hole in one of the bags; an awful smell choked the warm air. Aw, Frank! Be careful. . .
He saw light. Just a flash; a dim, small square of dull yellow in the darkness ahead, broken by the lumpy intrusion of bodies. The conveyor carried him a few feet closer and stopped, and the square of light vanished. What is it? Some loading bin? What? Do they pack bodies into a freight container? I couldn't survive that. He moved forward cautiously toward the light.
"Mr. Brule," the Committee member asked, "do you know why you are here?"
"I must be somebody's liability," Frank said hoarsely. He wasn't quite awake, having been escorted from his residence at 2:00 a.m.. He was in a small room with five women and four men, all of whom were dressed like college students and about that age. This is the Review Committee? He was skeptical.
"Are you familiar with the Committee's purpose?" a woman asked.
"Uh. . .well, something I should probably have a lawyer for. How about that phone call?"
"Social responsibility, Mr. Brule."
Frank was getting irritated. "Yeah, right, my lawyer can tell you all about it."
A woman in a blue jump suit leaned toward him. "You forfeited your rights when you started marketing PD5. As specified by the Court in Willis vs. New York: anyone associated with the development, manufacture, or distribution of illegal drugs—"
"What do you mean?" Frank broke in. "PD5 is a preservative, for Christ's sake!"
The room was silent but for the quiet tapping of someone's pen.
"Well?" Frank asked.
"Mr. Brule, how long did you think you could fool the US government?"
"I'm not trying to fool anyone," Frank hissed, "I sold my patent to MWI three or four years ago! I don't know what the hell they've done with it, and it's not my responsibility." Is it? he wondered.
A bearded man with glasses glared at Frank and said: "It may not interest you, but popcorn isn't the only thing psychological conditioning can sell. Are you aware of the political and economic forces battling for control of the American public, Mr. Brule?"
Frank was sweating now. "Yeah, maybe—so what? What do I have to do with it?"
"What the hell is going on here?"
The woman in the jumper frowned at him. "A war, Mr. Brule, on those who wish to avoid accountability," she said.
The heat blasted his face, and with another flash of light only yards ahead, he saw what lay in wait for him. A furnace! Jesus! A furnace! He gagged on his scream, diving back over the queue of bodies, tears streaming down his face. The roar of flame was silenced as the mouth of the furnace slammed shut. Got to get out! Out! Out! After a long scramble he came up against the corpulent remains which had previously impeded his retreat.
"Get out of my way, you fat bastard! Get out of my fucking way!" But the heavy carcass wouldn't budge. Wait! He turned back to the shortening distance between life and death. Heaving, turning, shuffling the bodies into place, he stacked cadavers against the furnace mouth, hoping they would slow the conveyor. Then he lay down in the darkness behind them, fighting nausea, exhaustion, and terror all at once.
"Somebody save me!" he wailed.
An alarm reached the cremation control terminal on Sandy Billig's desk moments after she turned away to make a phone call. "NOISE DETECTED—SOURCE UNKNOWN" an icon flashed.
"Hello," said Sandy. "I'd like to order the encyclopedia you advertised on TV last week." She swallowed the last bit of her FitSnak and threw the wrapper away. "Uh-huh, the full set."
A second alarm joined the first: "MESSAGE RELAY—URGENT"
"Oh—I didn't know they 'd be so expensive. Do you have a payment plan?"
The relayed message was from the Review Committee, and its words scrolled down Sandy's monitor screen: "Immediate Attention. Please cancel Federal Work Order SR560E. Authorization for incineration of non-potential citizen Frank Brule hereby revoked. Please halt processing. Comply without delay."
Originally, the Committee had found Frank Brule not only wantonly derelict, but also incapable of reform, and so had passed the harshest judgment on him. They considered Frank to be so obsessed with his own advancement that he couldn't possibly benefit society; his egocentrism made him a true psychopath, unable to participate in humanity without wreaking—albeit unintentionally—horrible destruction.
But things had suddenly changed. On the day of Frank's execution, a woman named Nancy Beretta announced her discovery of a cure for the Cerepotus virus. Cerepotus A and B were lethal, causing fevered inflammation and spontaneous hemorrhaging of the brain, and were transmitted to humans by the bite of feral dogs roaming the rural reaches of the country. Once inside the human body, the virus mutated into a secondary, highly contagious killer. Without knowing which strain—A or B—was present in the host, there was no treatment for it; infected patients had to be rigorously isolated until they died. The only way to identify the strain was to biopsy the carrier, i.e. the dog, and usually dogs just bit and ran.
Nancy Beretta had contracted the disease years earlier from a golden retriever while visiting her parent's farm in upstate New York. Thanks to Frank's reckless driving that day, the animal was recovered and tested. Consequently, Nancy was saved. Since then, Nancy had felt indebted to fate, and so devoted her life to fashioning a Cerepotus treatment. She had succeeded.
When it was discovered that Frank had inadvertently contributed to the Cerepotus cure, the Committee immediately cancelled his execution and recalled his case for further review. But the proprietor of the crematorium was preoccupied with her encyclopedia purchase, and the ordering process for Warner Bubble ROMs was very complicated, the questions endless. . . .
The dam broke. Searing heat wafted across Frank's body. He sat up. The corpses were slowly being sucked into the glowing furnace. Ash and smoke billowed into Frank's face. He watched with horror as the conveyor paused, whined. . .then jerked forward again. He pressed back into the mushy bag behind him, frantically digging, pushing, panting, whimpering. Heat licked at his feet, lashed at his eyes, and he slipped down, down, down.
"Noooooooooooooo. . ." he screamed.
Alarms flashed frantically on Sandy's terminal: "ADVISE STOP—NOISE DETECTED—ADVISE STOP" and "PRIORITY MESSAGE RELAY—RESPOND IMMEDIATELY"
"Yes," she said into the phone, "I would vote for a candidate like that. Uh. . .no, I don't think increased taxes will eliminate the deficit."
Impatient with the barrage of questions, Sandy glanced back at her terminal.
"Oh! My God! " she cried, dropping the receiver. She coded a full stop and read the Review Committee's message. "Oh, shit."
Her phone rang. She ignored it, activating a conveyor scan for Frank Brule's bar-coded containment bag. After a moment, the screen blinked "NEGATIVE."
"Son of a bitch," she said. The phone kept ringing. She snatched it up. "H-hello?" It was the encyclopedia company. "I'm sorry, I can't talk right now—yes, I know—sure, but. . .but. . . Hey, I don't even want it anymore, okay? That's right, cancel the order. Goodbye." She slammed the phone down. Her urge to buy the Bubble ROMs baffled her, and the Review Committee would undoubtedly want a more legitimate explanation for the mishap. She racked her brains for an excuse.
"I deeply regret to inform you, " she began typing, "that I was unable to comply with your request to halt processing on order #SR560E. Because of the recent surge in demand, I've had to greatly increase our rate of incineration. Again, I'm sorry, but by the time I received your message, Frank Brule had already been consumed."
Sandy hoped that was sufficient. She would hate to lose one of her biggest customers.