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He Who Controls the Past
Two blank-faced men dressed in black escorted Eric down the long hallway. The bright, overly sanitized whiteness made his eyes smart; made him wonder what terrible messes were obscured by the cleanliness. He had the vaguely uncomfortable sensation of being part of something infinitely larger than himself, like an insignificant particle of food traveling through the vast intestines of some vaster beast. Even the echo of his footsteps, Eric realized, would fade long before reaching the end of the corridor. He had no idea where he was, or how long he had been there: it might have been weeks, or even months. It was the type of place where time was forced to lose its significance.
At some point another man had been thrown into Eric’s cell, with an emaciated skull for a face and hateful eyes glassed over by starvation and suffering. Eric was afraid to look into the mirrors of those eyes and see himself, pathetic and broken. He tried to speak, but was interrupted by a harsh voice from the wall. “6079 Blair! Stop talking!” The man had been taken away soon after by the same guards that now marched Eric down the long hallway.
“Where are you taking me?” He tried to sound disinterested. The guard’s voice was as monotonous as his face when he answered, “Room 101.”
“What’s in there?” Eric’s query was answered this time by a blow to the stomach, and they lapsed into silence.
Suddenly, the guards seized Eric and shoved him through a doorway that appeared in the wall. For a second, he hovered precariously on the brink of a pool, not wide or long but fathoms deep. The moment he regained his balance he spun around, but the door had disappeared. Was he to be left here, alone? Above all, why? A deep voice answered his thoughts.
“You and I are alone here, Eric. But don’t worry. You are being watched” The speaker, a tall man with a kind smile, stood on an opposite platform. “As to why - look, Eric”, he instructed, gesturing gracefully towards the pool.
A dark shape was sinking slowly through the dirty greenish water. No, there were two shapes – were they people – a woman and her baby? Like seaweed, wisps of blonde hair drifted upwards.
“Yes. Your mother and sister. They are not dead – yet.” His sister was long dead. And yet, somehow that was her down there. Dying. “Why?” he asked, trying to reason through the tremor in his voice. “Why them? What have they done?”
“I am sorry, Eric, but this was her choice.” There was no sarcasm or irony in that calm voice, only a blatant truth. Eric felt a sudden, primitive hatred towards the man – that man, who dared to speak calmly as people drowned! The man who smiled as he asked sweetly, “Well. What are you going to do? Already they are far away. You would never be able to save them.”
“What is it that you want from me?” Eric choked on the words. “Anything, I’ll do it, Anything!”
“If you are falling from a height, it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope, Eric. You will do what is required of you.”
“Okay, I’ll do whatever you want, just tell me!”
“All tiresome emotions disappear if you truly love us. Even guilt.” The calm voice continued; a gentle, sleepy caress on Eric’s conscious. There was no need to die – but to die heroically! You are one of the few heroes left, he reminded himself. A sarcastic voice within his mind answered: No small wonder. Heroes don’t last long. Only the kind words of the smiling man would last forever. “You will do what you must, Eric--”
His mother looked up and seemed to smile through the water; begging him to accept her love; her sacrifice. Eric felt his feeble mind snap under the pressure, and with a wild motion he flung himself into the frigid water, insanely hoping to reach the opposite platform, to make that man shut up. Immediately he swallowed a mouthful of water and began to sink. His bowels turned to ice and he frantically scrabbled his way to the surface, managing to gasp a breath of air before the waves closed over his head. The kind, detached voice continued, growing muffled as Eric dove down through the water.
He forced himself to stoke regularly, downwards. The cold of the water, the pressure building in his lungs, the light from the surface all seemed to reach Eric from far away. He tried to concentrate on the dark shape with the yellow hair that was trying to slip away from him, but already his brain was short on oxygen.
It’s not yet too late, Eric realized, feeling a seductive little worm uncurl within him. There’s still hope for you, it said in an oily voice -- but a minute more and a minute deeper, and you will never again reach the surface. And he wanted to live. He realized it was his truest thought, stripped bare of artifice. He could swim back now, back to the beautiful oxygen above. They could teach him how to live. They could show him what really mattered – that kind, smiling face, like a big brother, would teach him. He was fairly certain now that his mother didn’t really matter, that loving her didn’t matter. Only love to that Big Brother was real love. Mother had been wrong in trying to save him, that was all. Only Big Brother could save him, could make him understand that he had done the right thing; more right than anything done by some stand-alone hero, because even heroes die. There would be no pain, no guilt, back in Room 101. Eric looked down one last time before turning his back.
His sister gazed up at him with trust in her big baby eyes. Surely she was innocent. They would give her justice, they would let her live, wouldn’t they? He heard the kind voice answer in his mind, soothing like cream soda, probing gently. “What is freedom, but slavery? What is justice, but a weak man’s excuse to live? Why should weak men live? Why should you live, Eric? Only the Party is immortal...”
So. He would die. He wondered with a shudder what drowning would be like, the cold water filling his body – or to return to the surface. He could buy some time, learn his lessons before the bullet finally entered his brain, die clean. Or he could die, loving, with his mother – no, don’t think like that! They would hurt him for that kind of thought, and he didn’t want more pain; the water was so cold and at the surface there was air – stop, stop thinking! One side of him dove down again, but a hand clamped threateningly around his throat, his own hand, that told him he would not sacrifice himself. He could never betray Big Brother.
Eric felt himself exploding within, or maybe it was just the impatient air trying to escape his lungs. The world seemed to be growing distant; he was alone in his mind. He opened his mouth to scream, to scream that he loved his mother, his sister, that he hated Big Brother and the man at the surface, but his own hand stoppered the sound. The treacherous water rushed into his open mouth, a black monster that clawed its way up to his brain, where he knew it would leave a scar –
Eric shot upright in his bed, sweat dripping from every part of himself, struggling to remember how to breathe, almost crying as the air entered his lungs again. It was all a dream, he told himself, just a nightmare. It had felt so real, though – it had felt like an echo of another time. He had a strange feeling that his own world no longer existed in the past of the future; that the past of the future was somehow not the present. Reality had been soaked in acid and cranked through the gears of a mechanical wringer, until all that remained was a string of people in that bare white place. Room 101. Eric looked out the window. The people on the streets below, bustling about their lives, singing as they worked, seemed as visions in contrast to the future that was now imprinted on his mind. It was taking shape already, on the streets, across the cities and the minds of the world. It will be here soon, he thought, rolling over and grabbing a pen. From his nightstand he took a small leather-bound notebook and scratched onto the first page the year when he would die; when the last man, guardian of the human spirit, would perish -- 1984.