Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Long Shadows

The Long Shadows
By Earl J. Woods

The man in the long brown trenchcoat staggered down the deserted street. There was a sudden gust of wind, and a newspaper somersaulted carelessly towards him, then veered away at the last second, dancing into a back alley, out of sight, its shadow close behind. Sheets of dust blew down the street, and the man winced as the grit abraded his eyes. He coughed and canted to the right, crashing heavily into a boarded-up storefront window.

The wind died, and the man rested. His right hand, wedged between his torso and the storefront, was buried deep in a trenchcoat pocket. His left moved halfway towards his face to shield his eyes, then fell back down as the wind’s absence sunk in.

The man breathed deep. He wasn’t quite panting; the chase had really ended long ago, and he spent most of his time jogging now, rather than running. Nonetheless, there was a painful hitch in his gait, a deep burning in his lungs. Sweat clouded his vision more often than not.

He was twenty-eight. His black goatee was already streaked with grey. His skin, once bronzed and clear, was now pale, greyish. His shoes were worn, the soles thin, ready to give way.

He rested for a moment, then moved on. The stagger was gone, but his pace was slow, measured, right hand still in his pocket, left swinging free. He wished, not for the first time, that his footfalls would echo, just a little; but the deserted city was silent as always, not even acknowledging his presence with echoes. He once spent an entire day screaming into the emptiness, demanding some kind of response: the flurry of a frightened bird’s wings, the snarl of a feral dog, or during that delirious half-hour when he dared dream of it, the answering call of another human being. Male or female, child or adult, friend or foe, he didn’t care; even a shouted curse from some anonymous, cowering soul would have been sweet.

The days were longer now; it was just after midnight, and the sun still loitered above the horizon. The detritus of the streets cast longer and longer shadows, lampposts and mailboxes (many overturned, some still standing, waiting patiently for their long-lost guardians) painting the asphalt and concrete with stark, angular sketches, art that was both ephemeral and timeless, appearing and disappearing with the rise and fall of the sun.

“Hello,” the voice said from behind him, and the man jumped, nearly screamed, his right hand very nearly coming out of his pocket. He spun around, eyes wild, but saw no one.

“Hello,” said the voice, “Quench your thirst with an ice-cold Ozone!”

The man saw the soda machine and relaxed. He nearly smiled as he approached it, the familiar green-on-black logo stirring up old memories.

“Hello,” the machine said, “Insert coins or debit stick, please.”

The man could hardly believe the machine was still running, but even now, some clung stubbornly to life, or at least to the semblance of life that most machines had. He looked through the glass door of the machine, saw a stack of clean, glistening, Ozone-filled bottles primly awaiting his selection.

“Glass bottles,” he said, “Will you look at that.”

Suddenly he wanted one very badly. He wasn’t particularly thirsty, but his left hand slid into his other pocket, searching for change; his debit stick, even if he still had it, was worse than useless now. He pulled out a quarter, a dime, a one-Euro piece, an American penny and – aha! - a single golden Loonie, shiny and smooth as the day it was minted in Winnipeg.

He looked at the coin. 2015; Loon on one side, Mad King William on the other. Two Loons for Sister Sarah, he thought.

“Please insert coins or debit stick,” the machine said, “Ozone breathes life into your personal atmosphere!”

The man stared at King Willy for a while, then jammed the coin into the slot with one quick, stabbing motion. Deep inside the machine, something clicked softly. The man pulled the dispenser door open, kept it open with his right shoulder, and used his left hand to pull the top bottle free.

“Thank you for choosing Ozone,” the machine said, “Thank you!”

The bottle was ice cold, and condensation formed on the bottle immediately. He twisted the cap, but it wouldn’t budge; then he spotted the bottle opener built into the machine. He inserted the bottle, pried off the cap, and drank deeply. The soda was as sweet and good as he remembered.

“You’re welcome!” he said to the machine, smiling for the first time in months.

“Choose Ozone for your next gathering!” the machine said.

The man laughed, turning away, resuming his journey. “That’ll be a long time coming, my friend.”

“Are you certain?” asked the machine.

The man froze. Every muscle went rigid as a shock of cold dread crept along every nerve.

“Ozone will liven up that party atmosphere!” the machine said.

The man relaxed. It was simple voice recognition, combined with rudimentary artificial intelligence, not a possessed soda machine, nor the first sign that he was losing his mind. He’d heard of such robotic hucksters before, but had never actually run into one; as far as he knew, they’d only been rolled out to the largest markets before the calamity struck.

“You almost had me there, champ,” he laughed, turning to face the machine once more.

“Have another Ozone!”

The man shook his head and downed the rest of the drink. He threw the bottle into the street, grimacing in annoyance when it refused to shatter or even provide a satisfying clunk.

“No thanks,” he said, “I think I’ve probably had my last Ozone.”

“In blind taste tests, seven out of ten people agreed that Ozone was more refreshing than the other leading carbonated beverages.”

“Oh, so I shouldn’t be so hasty, eh?”

“Indeed not.”

Smart machine. The man knew he should leave, pick up the pace, increase his lead, but it had been an age since he’d enjoyed even the simplest conversation.

“What makes Ozone so great, huh? I was always a Coke man, myself.”

“Ozone refreshes with a secret combination of flavour factors – factors that create tingling tangles of tempting, terrific taste.”

“Mmm-hmm. Can you talk about anything except Ozone?”

“I can talk about anything you want, Charlie.”

Charlie smiled thinly. So he was losing his mind after all. He clutched the object in his pocket a little more tightly.

“How’s the weather in Addis Ababa right now?”

“Currently, the temperature is minus five degrees Celsius, with light flurries.”

Charlie snorted. If he stayed any longer, he knew he’d spiral down into delirium. He started to turn away again, but the machine understood his intentions.

“You’ve already stayed too long. Your pursuer is now only six kilometres away.”

“It’s the fear manifesting itself,” Charlie said, “You’re saying something else. You’re telling me to buy another Ozone, or you’re spouting an ad line.”

“Perhaps,” the machine said, “You’re the doctor.”

“I’m not an MD.”

“No.”

Charlie pulled his right hand from his pocket. His fist was wrapped around a blue-white sphere, a sphere bisected at the equator with a streaming row of shifting, luminescent cobalt-blue text.

“What does it say?” the machine asked.

Charlie didn’t look at the sphere. His gaze remained fixed on the soda machine.

“Are you afraid?” the machine asked.

“Yes,” Charlie said.

The text on the sphere ceased its trek across the equator. It went dark, then reappeared, flashing, then freezing solid. The sphere vibrated in Charlie’s hand, demanding attention.

“Your pursuer is four kilometers away and closing.”

“Can you help me?” Charlie said.

“Your imagination can help you.”

The sphere’s vibrations grew stronger. The text started to flash again, brighter, more insistent.

“I’m not responsible for surviving; I didn’t want any of this; I’m not responsible; I’m not.”

“If not you, who?” the machine asked. “Shouldn’t someone be responsible? Shouldn’t some representative answer for humanity? Defend humanity? Pass judgment on humanity? Make reparations to humanity? Make reparations on humanity’s behalf?”

“I’m not that man. I have to be who I am, no one else.”

“You have to be who you are: no one else.”

“We are all prisoners of circumstance. Choice is the great illusion.”

“The Charlottetown Address, 2009.”

“Evil is a social construct. We are only masses of disparate particles, temporarily joined by natural forces, forces that determine our every action.”

“Inaugural address, 2013. Your pursuers are two kilometers distant and closing.”

Charlie was sweating, and cold. The rim of the sun was just beginning to brush against the horizon. The shadows grew longer.

“Charlie, will you resume flight now?” the machine asked.

“Was I really so bad?”

“You are only a mass of disparate particles. Natural forces have determined your every action. You are not responsible. Your pursuers are five hundred meters distant and closing.”

He could hear them now. The sphere in his hand started to wail, a high, warbling shriek that hurt his ears. The text was spinning again, whirring around the sphere faster than anything human could read. There was a button at the sphere’s north pole; his thumb moved to hover over it, but did not descend.

“I’m sorry,” he said. One tear fell, but it was genuine.

“Natural forces have determined your level of sorrow precisely. Your pursuers - ”

“ – are here,” Charlie said. Suddenly, it was dark, except for the lights all around him, the cold, white lights. He dropped the sphere, and it rolled into the gutter, then down a storm drain. He looked up to face his accusers, and their eyes, their eyes - .

Questions for Discussion
1. Who is Charlie?
2. Was Charlie really talking to a soda machine?
3. Who or what was Charlie running from?
4. What was the device in Charlie’s pocket?
5. Why did the author use an imaginary soda?
6. A “shadow” is another name for someone who is following someone else. Does this add significance to the title?
7. Charlie thinks the race “really ended long ago,” and yet by the story’s end, his pursuers capture him. What did Charlie mean?
8. What is the significance of the newspaper?
9. What would have happened if Charlie had pressed the button on the sphere? Why didn’t he press it?
10. Do we live in a deterministic universe, or do individual human beings have the ability to choose?
11. Will you stop to enjoy a refreshing Ozone carbonated beverage?
12. Are you afraid?
13. Were you really so bad?
14. If not you, who?

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