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Click. Tick, click.
The sound of the machine was comforting to him, its odd, unmetered rhythm a soothing cadence to focus his rapidly moving mind. He stared down at the small square of metal sitting in front of him, still rattling off its message. His brow furrowed as he concentrated on the sounds, bending his head towards the small slip of paper resting on his desk. Slowly, he translated the clicks in his mind, trading the ticks for letters and quickly scribbling the completed words into the boxes evenly spaced along the thin slip of parchment, already translating the next letters in his mind. The machine whirred and snickered as his pen glided swiftly across the page, his knuckles white from tersely gripping the writing instrument.
Suddenly, the machine stopped. Its endless clicking ceased, and it stilled.
He dropped his pen with a sigh and leaned back in his chair, its wooden frame squeaking in protest. He glanced down curiously at the message he’d written.
J coming in two weeks STOP Will stay in Wrin STOP Miss you
J he thought in his mind. He wondered who they were. A he or a she? A Jocelyn? James? It must be some name long enough to warrant an abbreviation to avoid the pricey character count. The message was long by the usual standards, maybe cost twenty or―
Suddenly, a thin, pale hand snatched up the note, and briskly strolled away. A Runner, off to address the message, to deliver it to the person expecting J.
Sighing again, he slumped forward over his desk, eyeing the machine and waiting for it to begin its methodical ticking again. He grabbed another parchment slip, and smoothed it over the soft woodgrain of his desk. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a flash of russet-colored red and glanced at the desk beside him.
It was a woman, pale-skinned with frizzy red-hair, a smattering of freckles splattered over her cheeks. Her eyes, a light hazel, were wide in astonishment as she stared over at him.
“You’re not supposed to read the Comms,” she hissed incredulously, warily eyeing the Supervisor who was monotonously making his rounds across the wide room.
The Comms. The only method of communication that was still allowed besides speaking after the Regression Act of 2167. These clipped, relatively expensive messages were the only method of conversation across long distances. He moved closer to his family after the act, to the city of Wrin, because there were no more cars. No more planes. No more trains. The atmosphere had become so riddled with holes from the pollutants and smog that the Authority banned it all. The glowing screens of technology were but a distant memory to him. The only thing technical left in his life was the small, square, silver box sitting on the desk in front of him.
He eyed the red-haired girl, still staring at him horrified from her perch behind her desk. He opened his mouth to respond, when the machine in front of him abruptly began its ticking once more.
He sharply twisted to face the machine, and furiously began translating.
. . .
The floorboard beneath his doorstep creaked when he crossed the threshold into his dark apartment. He unfastened the buttons of his coat, and slung it across the back of the frail wooden chair in his kitchen.
He moved to sit on the small couch in the far corner, and once there, scrubbed a hand over his face, exhausted from the long day, but too nervous to sleep. Too nervous to sleep in fear of the Authority knocking on his door, walking over the creaky floorboard, and taking him. Taking him for reading the Comm.
. . .
“I could have reported you,” she scowled, loudly dropping her tray onto the table beside him. It was lunch break at the Station, and all the Operators were cramped into the small, dining area at the end of the food services hall.
“But you didn’t,” he pointed out dubiously, blinking at her sudden intrusion.
“Well, I could have,” she grumbled, turning back towards her lunch. It was greens today. The Authority regulated the food intake of each citizen, to ensure that resources would never be depleted again, as they once were before the Act. He had opted to forgo lunch today in favor of picking up more apples on his way to his shift. His stomach growled hungrily at the prospect of waiting four more hours until another meal.
He turned back towards the book he had been studiously reading before her blunt interruption. It was something about televisions, and the fascinating role they used to play in the family dynamic decades before the Act. He liked reading, liked learning about this time. The time before everyone became so obsessed and addicted to the vibrant pixels, before they only cared and lived through them. He fingered the corner of the page, fiddling with the creases made by previous readers.
“What did it say?” she whispered hesitantly, her voice slightly wavering.
He almost missed it, had been so focused on his book that he almost didn’t hear her say it. He glanced up curiously from the page, placing his finger on the line to hold his place.
“What?” he asked.
“What did the Comm say?” she asked again, more confident this time.
He looked at her skeptically. “Why should I tell you?” he scoffed. “Just a minute ago you were about to run to the Supervisor to report me.” He certainly wasn’t going to give her any more leverage to get him fired.
“Well, again, I didn’t tell,” she said defensively, her eyes flaring for a moment. She glanced down at her hands, fidgeting in her lap, and became quiet again. “I’ve just never read one before, and I want to know.”
He frowned. “Well, it really wasn’t much. Just something about a friend or family coming to visit.”
“Oh,” she said, slightly crestfallen. She picked incessantly at a piece of fuzz on her skirt, and abruptly turned back towards her lunch. Her intent was clear: don’t speak of this again.
They worked side by side for weeks, listening closely to the ticking of the machines and translating the incoming Comms. They sat together in the lunchroom often, speaking of all things except the one incident, which they still didn’t mention.
He didn’t know her name, but nobody usually bothered with names here. The job of an Operator was not one desired throughout the Society. Many would much rather be running out in the sun delivering Comms instead of translating them from the machine language in the dark, dank rooms of the Station. Therefore, the employees would periodically drop out, finding bigger, better opportunities, and more would fill their empty desks.
But he wasn’t expecting her desk to be empty when he entered the Station promptly at calling time. She was never late. Never. He glanced quickly around the room, attempting an unconcerned demeanor, and then ducked to sit in his chair, breathing oddly.
It wasn’t until when the Supervisor came over to her desk, a young man trailing meekly behind him, that he began to lose hope. She was gone.
He thought she enjoyed this job. He thought she felt a small pride, just like him, in translating these messages for the society. They’d tease that without them, the society would never understand, would only hear the odd clicks and ticks and would stare confused at the small metal tin, completely in the dark. He expressed this to his Advisor, who gave him an odd look, but still stamped his employment contract for another year. He thought she had done the same.
Staring down at the blank sheet of parchment sitting on his weathered desk, he breathed another sigh.
In a small part of his mind, he noticed the machine had begun whirring. He tried to ignore it, to just let it tick and and for once only hear the clicks and sounds and not letters and phrases. But he couldn’t. His mind, hardwired to understand the language, had already begun.
Defeated, he grasped his pen and began writing out the Comm. Once he filled the last box, he slammed the pen onto his desk, not caring about the twenty or so heads that snapped up at his outburst. He dropped his head into his hands, and stared down at the Comm. He hadn’t read one since that day, that day she had caught him glancing too long at the parchment to be just casual. Damn it all he thought to himself. What’s reading one more going to do?
He slowly peered down at the slip of paper, letting his eyes drift over the words written in his tidy scrawl.
He stopped, eyes widening in disbelief. No. He read it again, and one more time, grabbing the slip and gripping frantically at the twelve words written on the page.
It’s me, Red STOP They have me STOP Don’t trust anybody STOP