William Radke was a professor of English and Philosophy at Cloud University. At one hundred and fifty, he was getting old, but he was still loved by his colleagues and nearly worshipped by his students. It was a singular distinction that, throughout his long career, he had taught both Shakespeare and Nietzsche, Milton and Spinoza, Dickens and Kant. He published a great deal, and though most of his work was of a scholarly sort, Immortal Sons of Nietzsche was so widely praised it went mainstream and topped a few best-seller lists. He’d shaken hands with the president, toasted the king of the Confederate States of Africa, sired fifteen children with six different wives. He was pompous and jovial.
Now, on the first day of his one hundred and fiftieth year, he entered the Center for Human Advancement. It was a plain white building on an average downtown corner. Twenty-five years, he thought as he walked through its doors, Do they really go so fast? The entrance to the place was spacious, with a vaulted dome ceiling. Everything was white, and the absence of color was only broken by strange paintings on the walls and a strip of blue carpet that led to the main floor. He wondered, probably not for the first time, if this was part of the test, if they were watching him even here.
Well, let’s see what they think of this, he thought. He reached deep into the front of trousers for a scratch and then shook his leg with a fart. Score that, you government dogs.
The main floor was larger still, but it was full of silent and anxious people. He remembered with some nostalgia the first time he’d been to this place, one hundred and twenty-five years ago. He’d been a dumb, pale, jittery kid, agonizing over what to say and how to look. He almost missed the thrill of it. But then he saw that version of his younger self, shaking in his shoes in the line in front of him, and he was happy not to be there again.
It wasn’t a long line. Even in a big city, a quarter-centennial birthday only landed on a handful of citizens. It was just a twenty minute wait to reach the counter.
“Identification,” the woman said.
Radke produced it.
“One hundred and fifty,” the woman whistled. “You must be doing something right. And you’re the second one today.”
“Never give up without a fight,” Radke said. She was an attractive woman, and he smiled.
“Well you can just take that back, and go ahead and fill out this form while you’re waiting in the lobby. The Guide will take you there. Good luck!”
The Guide was a kid in a government uniform, forty years on him at best. He was expressionless as he led Radke through a series of quiet hallways. Something always unsettled Radke when he watched these government guys walk; it was like there weren’t any lights on up top. They were just rigid motion under environmental distress.
They came to a door marked Lobby #6: Age 150, and the Guide stopped and opened it.
“Please fill out the form and wait in the lobby until your name is called, Mr. Radke,” the Guide said.
Lobby #6, like everything else at the HAC, was stark and white. There were three rows of metal chairs, a table with a cup full of ball point pens, and a door at the front of the room. A digital scroller over the door repeated in red letters, Your patience is appreciated. Your time will come soon.
Only one of the chairs was occupied. Radke took a seat next to it.
“Hello, Bernie,” he said.
“Radke,” the man smiled. “And here I thought you’d forgotten our anniversary.” He put out his hand and Radke shook it.
Bernie Staltzweiger had achieved his own success in the academic world, though not nearly as much as Radke. His venue was history, his specialty ancient Rome, and Radke had always liked the man. It was sheer coincidence that they had been born on the same day one hundred and fifty years ago.
“So how many years has it been?” Radke said. “I suppose it was that humanities conference. What was that, fifteen years ago?”
“Closer to twenty, I think,” Bernie said. “Do you remember that red-head who introduced the dean?”
Radke laughed, full and honest. It ended in a minor coughing fit and a hand to the chest. “Oh, I thought they were going to incinerate her on the spot. That poor woman. She couldn’t have been more than fifty.”
“Well, she certainly lightened the mood. Those damn things get so stuffy. Hell, that might of been the last one I bothered getting to.”
There was something in Bernie’s voice that bothered Radke. He didn’t want to call it resignation.
“You’re looking a little tired,” he said.
Bernie spread his hands. “You get old,” he said. He looked at the door. “This will be the sixth time we’ve gone through that blasted door. Judged, ranked, accounted for. Not a whole lot of people get to seven.”
Radke thought for a moment. His students would have recognized the look on his face; it was the blank stare that came before he pulled apt quotation from memory. He found it, and he recited it with sincerity.
“Tis the witching time of night
Orbed is the moon and bright
And the stars they glisten, glisten
Seeming with bright eyes to listen
For what listen they?
“I think I’ve heard that before,” Bernie said. “Probably from you. Who is that?”
“Keats,” Radke said. “Coming here always makes me think of it:
For a song and for a charm
See they glisten in alarm
And the moon is waxing warm
To hear what I shall say.”
A tenuous silence crept up on the old professors. It was eerie how well this poet, who had died all those centuries ago, had described the chamber that lay beyond the door. It was a silence that, in spite of its fragility, remained unbroken until a large voice vibrated through the Lobby.
The name also scrolled in red above the door: Staltzweiger, Bernie. Your time has come.
When Bernie stood up it was the first time Radke noticed the cane. His old friend had a bend in his back and groaned from the effort of standing.
“Off to the races,” he said.
“Oh, cheer up you old rogue,” Radke said. “There’s some life left in those legs of yours.”
Bernie’s smile was sedated. The hand he put on Radke’s shoulder was shaky. “I’ll see you on the other side, William.”
“The Meeting Grounds,” Radke said. “It’s just around the corner from here. Let’s meet up, talk about old times.”
Bernie nodded. His cane against the hard floor was an ominous clack, clack, clack. He fed his paperwork through a slot by the door and it opened. He went through it and it closed.
Radke shook his head. There were failsafes, he reminded himself. They didn’t throw you to the incinerator because they caught you on a bad day. They’d see Bernie’s record. They’d pass him through.
It didn’t take long to fill out his papers. He triple-checked each page and made sure he dotted all the i’s. He considered checking yes in the other known aliases box, and writing Just Kidding, but decided against it. There wasn’t a government in history that had a sense of humor.
When his name rattled through the room –
and scrolled above the door –
Your time has come.
he fed his papers through the slot and walked through the door, confident with his song and with his charm.
It was a white cube, about fifteen feet in length. It contained nothing but four white walls, a white ceiling, a white floor, and Radke. Reality felt suspended here, washed in government white and frozen in government time. The brightness and the stark absence of the material world made him feel alone and singular, even on his sixth visit to this place. Something as simple as a chair in the corner, or a coffee table, and the whole feeling might have evaporated. But in the emptiness the feeling was very real.
And the moon is waxing warm, he thought, To hear what I shall say.
The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, full and deep and resonating.
“WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE HUMAN ADVANCEMENT CENTER?”
Prepared for it or not, Radke flinched at the suddenness of it. He shook himself and cracked his knuckles.
“Well,” he said, “Do you want the short version or the long version?”
“Currently, it’s to ensure the efficiency of society and the quality of its members. By systematically eradicating the lowermost echelons of humanity we maintain stability and productivity. Originally, however, it was conceived as a means by which to purge the radicals that were perpetuating the Last War in the twenty-second century. When the war finally ended, the government forgot to close the program down, and now we use it for population control and housecleaning. And, of course, it provides security to handsome old stallions such as myself.”
Radke wondered if any of the operators behind these walls had a sense of humor. He’d never been behind the scenes, but he always imagined a room full of screens and a single technician at a microphone, behind him a group of analysts dissecting his words, his tone, his blinking patterns. Did they ever laugh?
“WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE?”
“I’m a professor of English and Philosophy at Cloud University,” he said. “Mostly Nietzsche and Shakespeare, these days. I’ve produced a number of articles and books examining the modern applicability of their works and the various uses we might put them to. I’ve also argued extensively throughout my career that literature and philosophy are worthy pursuits beyond any practical applications, that the arts of reading and writing and critical awareness are the foundation of any real civilization.”
“YOU ARE A PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND YOUR PREVIOUS ANSWER CONTAINS A DANGLING PARTICIPLE. EXPLAIN.”
Radke thought a moment.
“Uses to which they might be put is a clause from which an asshole’s mouth might spring.”
That one’s got to give them a laugh, he thought. But the voice was relentlessly detached and inhuman.
“WHO ARE YOU?”
“Really?” Radke said. He was actually disappointed. “Well, to a government as pragmatic as this one, I suppose I am what my purpose is. But that’s not what you’re asking, is it, dear operator? Your obsession with me goes right to my core, to the essence of my being; you’re dying to know what makes this lover tick. It is with profound sadness, and tragic irony, that I inform you that such knowledge does not exist.
“You see before you a man, dear operator, but what sort of man is he? He is old, he is intelligent, he is charming. You even know his name, and it’s William Radke. But you know as well as he does that he is none of these things. These are the pressures of an external world that are no more a part of him than you are of them. They are temporary, illusory, their definitions written in the sands of a delirious time.
“And I would show you my singular self, dear operator; I would cast off this shell and these identities and stand naked and unchained. But alas, without the world that chains me I am nothing. A spark in the wind, a speck in the eye. This heart that beats before you cannot escape the body that sustains it.
“Given this grave paradox, you will forgive my refusal, and shove it up your ass.”
They really must be laughing at that one, he thought. He’d always been a confident man, and it had been a long time since he’d feared these examinations, but this was certainly the first time he’d enjoyed himself.
“YOU ARE NEAR DEATH. OF WHAT FURTHER USE ARE YOU TO SOCIETY?”
“That’s more like it,” he said. “I have hundreds of students, all of whom have worked incredibly hard just to attend my classes. Several of the more promising ones are currently under my wing and I intend great things for them. I’m also working at what I hope will be my magnum opus, a study of Milton through the lens of super-modern atheism. I’m confident that it will be completed and published before the decade is out.”
“WHAT IS THE CUBED ROOT OF ONE MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-SEVEN THOUSAND, SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY-TWO?”
“Pfffft. B over twenty-seven.”
There was a pause. The voice never paused. Radke imagined, in a comic twist, the operator becoming confused, and a big steel arm picking him up and dropping him in the incinerator.
“Expound?” Radke laughed. “Is that vernacular government-sanctioned? Listen, it’s a stupid question. The twenty-seven is the number of imbeciles it took to write it out, and the B is for horseshit.”
A few moments later the white room dimmed and a door opened on the far wall. In his mirth Radke bowed before he took his leave.
There were no lines at the exit. Radke supposed that if someone raised a racket on the way to the incinerator, they’d prefer it went unseen. A man’s privacy extended that far, at least.
“Well look at you, Mr. Radke,” the man behind the glass said. “One hundred and fifty years old and in the eighty-seventh percentile. What’s your secret?”
“Don’t let the bastards get you down,” Radke said.
The remark made the man tense up. He laughed to cover it up.
“Yeah. Well, congratulations, good luck, and we’ll see you again in twenty-five years.”
The man slid Radke’s renewed identity under a slit in the glass. It was glossy, and underneath a new picture of his old face was all the familiar information. Sex: Male. Height: 5’10”. Weight: 160 lbs. Eyes: Blu. The only thing that had changed was his Citizen’s Percentile, or city perk. Down from ninety-one to eighty-seven.
Outside the sun felt strange on his skin. The white room could have that effect, the surreality of it hanging around like a fog. The bustle of legs down the sidewalk and cars on the road were louder than he remembered. He walked about a half-block down the street and walked into The Meeting Grounds.
At first, when he didn’t see Bernie there waiting for him, he didn’t give it a second thought. Maybe old Bernie was in the bathroom, maybe he got held up with some extra paperwork. Radke took a seat by the window and ordered a black coffee, laughing quietly to himself as he recalled his answers. He’d have to tell Bernie a few of them.
Ten minutes went by. Half an hour. An hour. But Bernie said it himself: they were getting old. The geezer probably just forgot. It wasn’t until Radke finally looked out the window, back the way he had come, that he understood.
There was smoke rising from the HAC. They gave you some privacy when the bad news came, but they didn’t hide the smoke. They didn’t want people to forget. Productivity and social stability. Work hard and walk tall and be part of the future, or ride the chimney of the Human Advancement Center.
Radke’s high popped like a balloon. He watched the smoke rise until there was no more of it, and he watched a little longer. He suddenly felt very old.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he thought, looking at the plain building down the road, I will fear no evil. The Bible was melodramatic and insane, but the translators under King James did have a way of putting things.
He paid for his coffee and walked outside to hail a cab.