Twenty-two-year-old Al Huxlee stepped off the bus and checked his phone. According to the display, directly ahead was the New Century Building. The time displayed gave him only ten minutes to make his next assignment, attendance at the latest information session sponsored by the government and assigned to him at the last minute by his employer, BNW Magazine.
A small crowd gathered in front of the building, some, like himself, hustling through the entrance. On the periphery of the throng were several nattily dressed but listless-looking individuals, white bandages wrapped around their heads and a far-off look in their eyes. He tried to push past one such individual, but the man seized his shirt front and held up a green card.
“I’m free,” the man said.
Al pried the man’s fingers off him. “Free? From what?”
“From free will,” the man muttered with an enigmatic smile, then shuffled away.
Nutjob. Al pushed through the doorway of the building. Three guards, dressed in black and wearing reflective sunglasses, checked his ID. They point toward the doorway labeled J56. Through another set of doors, coal-colored walls and red carpet greeted him. He quickly got into the line leading to a doorway marked “BDCS Information Session.” A gray-haired man stood in front of him, smoking a cigarette. The dark, noxious cloud tickled his sinuses, causing him to sneeze.
The older man turned but continued to puff away. Around his neck was a lanyard and a white ID card hanging from it with the name “Dan Aligeari.” In one hand was a crumpled-looking paper bag bearing the letters “GCM.”
Al quickly recovered. “Do you mind?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s not polite or healthy.”
Dan snorted. “I could care less.”
Al frowned. Were all veteran reporters this rude? He hoped not. At that point, he noticed eight holes had been punched through Dan’s name card. “Why does your card have holes in it?”
Dan grinned, but it looked more like a grimace. “You’ll see.” He turned and made his way into the doorway.
A tall, thin man wearing wire-rim glasses grabbed Dan’s name card pocket and stared at it critically. “Back again, Mr. Aligeari?”
Dan smirked. “Dr. Lenny Castro, I presume?” he said, then blew smoke in the man’s face. Still gagging, Castro hole-punched another notch in Dan’s card.
A short bald man appeared and snatched the bag out of Dan’s hands. “Thank you for the snacks.” He quickly disappeared.
With a chuckle, Dan moved past Castro.
“Next, please,” the doctor stated, rubbing his eyes. Al stepped forward.
Dr. Castro glanced at him. “Dr. Soros. We’ve got a fresh one.”
The short, bald, bearded man he’d seen earlier materialized with a lanyard. “Hello, young man. What is your name? I’m Dr. Josef Soros.”
“Al Huxlee, of BNW Magazine.”
Soros scribbled the young man’s name on a white card and snapped it onto the lanyard. “Very good. Always looking for more coverage,” he reached up and looped the cord around Al’s neck.
Castro seized Al’s card and hole-punched it.
Al glanced down. “What is the hole punch for?”
Castro yawned. “Quality control. Next, please!”
Soros grabbed Al’s arm and dragged him into the large conference room. “Have a seat. Good day.” He let go and turned away.
Al rubbed his limb and surveyed the room. Most seats were filled by slouched figures with zombie-like glazed eyes. This first magazine assignment was proving to be a real chore and not at all what he’d hoped it would be. Even worse, the only spot available was by Dan, but at least he no longer sucked on a cancer stick.
Oh well, let’s get this over with. Al slid in next to the reporter. The man looked at him. “I see you got a leash.”
Al started to protest, but then his stomach grumbled. That early morning Starbucks continued to grind away at his intestines. “Is there anything to snack on around here?”
Dan waved at a counter set by the wall. “Over there, but don’t eat the green wafers.”
A grimace-like smile once again appeared on the older man’s face. “Because it might disagree with you.” With a barking laugh, he nearly fell out of his chair.
Al turned away and walked over to the table. The man is frigging nuts. Several rows of water bottles stood next to a picked-over pile of bagged pretzels and a huge stack of green wafers. He latched onto a bottle and a pretzel bag. Peripherally, he also eyed the crackers. What is wrong with these? He chose one and sniffed it. An odd sickly-sweet smell came from it and a strong feeling of unease. With a toss, he flipped the wafer back on the mound and returned to his seat.
As he slid in, Dan looked over. “Good choice.”
A thump echoed from the rear of the room, and Al twisted in his chair. Dr. Castro and Soros bolted the doors shut and walked past to stand on either side of a huge projector screen.
Soros spoke up. “The presentation will start shortly.” He turned to his partner. “If you will do the honors, sir.” He handed a small black remote to Castro.
Castro banged on the device. “It won’t turn on, Soros.”
Soros gritted his teeth. “Try pushing the red button.” Castro stared at the remote blankly. “Oh, for God’s sake. Use the other side.”
Castro flipped it over. “Right you are!” Instantly the projector whirred, and the screen filled with the image of a slide labeled, “BDCS — an information Session” He looked up, pleased with himself, before turning to address his audience. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to today’s disease of the week. Today I have a video presentation covering a newly discovered syndrome called BDCS or Brain Dead Conservative Syndrome.” Castro glared at the laser pointer and started pushing buttons.
A red light shot out and struck Soros between the eyes. “CASTRO! You’re going to blind me!”
Castro glanced around perplexed but swiftly redirected the pointer to the screen, but not before nearly blinding the front row of his audience. “Ahem,” he continued, “This syndrome first appeared in 2008 during the Presidential election and has pronounced symptoms and, sadly, no known cure. The following presentation will illustrate the effects of the disease.”
Castro pushed a button on the remote, and a video segment began of a neatly dressed woman sitting in a restaurant. A waiter approached the table.
“Ma’am,” the waiter began, “Can I help you?”
The woman looked up. The screen image froze on the woman’s face.
Castro spoke, “Notice the crossed eyes, caused by only being able to see extremes and nothing in the middle.”
The film continued.
“Are you talking to me?” the woman replied. “Because I don’t like your tone.”
The waiter glanced about and then shrugged his shoulders. “Would you care to hear the specials?”
“Are you trying to limit my options? Did the government tell you to say this?”
The video stopped again.
“Note the victim’s intense paranoia and overly sensitive nature. This makes simple conversation almost impossible.”
The film advanced again.
The waiter cleared his throat. “Our special today is spaghetti with ….”
“Are you saying my spine is like linguine?”
“No, ma’am, spaghetti is the special.”
“Okay, I’ll have the fish. Does it come from the Sea of Galilee, and was it prepared by a rabbi?”
The waiter stared at her a moment. “Um, no, it came from the Atlantic, and Jose, our cook, prepares it.”
The woman glared. “Jose? I see. He must be an illegal alien. Can I see his green card?”
The waiter began tapping his pencil on his order pad. “Jose is from New Jersey. He was born here.”
“I need to see his birth certificate.”
The waiter shook his head. “That is not going to happen.”
The lady wagged a finger at him, “The Constitution says I have that right.”
“You’ll have to show me that passage,” the waiter replied.
The woman paused. “It must be in the Bible.”
“Somehow, I doubt that. Do you still want the fish?”
The film froze again.
“Notice how the syndrome twists the thought process to assert beliefs contrary to facts, and the reliance on the Bible when the victim’s logic trail becomes unsustainable.”
The video began again.
“Yes,” the woman replies, “I see the price is ten dollars, yet I only want to pay six.”
“I can give you a half order if you like.”
“No, I expect a full order for just six dollars.”
The waiter snapped his notepad closed. “I’m sorry, but that can’t happen. Would you like to speak to the manager?”
“Yes, I want to know the plans for redistributing my wealth to the other customers.”
“Oooookay,” the waiter replied with a roll of his eyes. He turned and walked to the kitchen. After a few moments, he returned with a supervisor.
“Ma’am, what is the problem?”
“Socialism and high taxes,” the woman replied.
“I don’t see how this is relevant to completing your order. Can you please …”
“I SAID SOCIALISM AND HIGH TAXES,” the woman shouted.
The manager recoiled, “I see no need to start ….”
“THIS IS A SOCIALIST PLOT TO TAKE MY MONEY!”
“I’m sorry, but you need to leave,” the manager shot back. She looked at the waiter and gave him a thumbs-out signal. The waiter pulled the woman’s chair away from the table.
“LOOK! ABUSE! I AM BEING DENIED MY RIGHTS! THE BLACK HELICOPTERS ARE COMING FROM THE UN; MY NAME IS BEING ADDED TO THE DEATH PANELS!” After much scuffling, the woman, dragged by the waiter, disappeared into the background. The video stops.
“As you can see, attempts to converse with individuals suffering from this disease usually ends up in shouting matches,” Castro said. “Any questions?”
Silence greeted them before a hand tentatively rose.
“This seems to be deliberately a one-sided analysis,” said a blond female reporter in front of Dan.
Soros cocked his head to one side. “What news service are you from?”
“Faux News,” the reporter said with a smirk.
Castro marched over, grabbed the reporter’s lanyard, and immediately punched a hole in their name card.
As he marched back to the front of the room, Al leaned toward Dan. “What was that about?”
“A learning moment.”
Dr. Castro cleared his throat. “Okay, anyone have legitimate questions?”
Another reporter spoke, though his voice shook, “Uh, what can be done to fix this problem?”
Dr. Soros answered, “I think the only solution is to ask the government to study the issue and, in four to five years, legislated ways to liquidate such thoughts and ideas out of existence.”
Dan nudged Al. “Watch this.” He raised his hand. “Given the current monetary situation in the US, how do you propose to pay for this?”
Dr. Castro answered, “Clearly, if the money is unavailable, Congress should impose a tax. I would call this a freedom tax to free us from people who believe differently from the accepted norm. Because as all of us in academia know, we need to protect the general public from people who believe that the government is the enemy because clearly, the government is not – the only enemy we face is the thoughts and opinions of those with compliance issues.”
Soros stood up. “Yes, and if we are successful, our next step is to revisit our patent on alternative facts. We had hoped that would have enhanced our revenue stream, but we ran into an intractable problem.”
Dan spoke up. “Which was?”
“No one believed us. That said, however, we should have better success with our infringement lawsuit against Faux News for their blatant attempts to usurp our patent to deceive the public.” Soros turned to Castro. “Would that be fair to say?”
“Yes,” Castro replied, “and balanced too.”
Castro pointed to a long counter on the opposite wall from the snacks. “Well, everyone, time for evaluations. See the feedback forms on the table by the exit.”
Dan stood up and sauntered toward the forms.
Al followed along slowly. What is this nonsense? He checked his watch. Man, I wish I could have the last half hour back. No wonder no one wanted to come to this session. To add to his disgust, Dan was smoking another cigarette when he reached the table. Oh, crap, not again.
Dan turned and handed him a feedback form. Al quickly read it:
I believe that BDCS is a disease that should be eradicated through government interdiction. This document is an affidavit that whatever measures are necessary to accomplish this have my full support. I, therefore, waive all my rights under the Constitution. Sign here.
Al looked at Dan, who was rolling the wadded-up form in his hand. “What the hell is this?”
“The future,” Dan replied.
Dr. Castro checked his watch. “Sorry folks, we are out of time. Please line up at the exits.”
Al shrugged and turned toward the door he had come in. But it remained locked.
“Nope, the exit is over here,” Dan said behind him. Al rotated on his heel and found everyone lining up at the door in the far corner.
Dan and Al got in line. Castro stood next to the doorway, hole punch in hand. As each person handed the feedback form, Castro examined it. For some, he punched their name card. For others, he took the lanyard and gave the person a green card. Everyone eventually filed through the exit.
Dan stepped up. Castro put his hand out, and the older man dropped the wadded-up form into the palm of his hand.
“I see,” Castro said with a thin-lipped frown. “Give me the lanyard.”
Still puffing on his cigarette, Dan pulled off the lanyard and dropped it into Dr. Castro’s hand. The doctor dug out a red card and handed it to him.
“Thanks for nothing,” Dan said, blowing smoke into the Castro’s face.
Coughing, Castro waved him through the doorway.
Al stepped up and handed Castro his unsigned form.
The doctor looked it over, frowned, grabbed the lanyard, and yanked it closer. Clip. Another hole appeared on the name card.
What the hell? “What is the hole punch for?”
“You’ll find out,” Castro said, pointing toward the exit.
With a shrug, Al stepped through into a darkened passage. A light further down the passage revealed a door with a glowing “Exit” sign above it. But in the center of the hallway, just before the exit, were two doors opposite each other, where a security guard stood under dim light. A pair of figures stood in the hall, a short distance in front of the guard.
From where he stood, Al could not see who it was. But as he approached, he saw one of them was Dan fiddling with a pack of cigarettes. “What’s going on?”
The guard held out his hand, and the blond Faux News reporter in front of Dan presented her green card. The guard stepped aside, and the reporter headed toward the door marked “Exit.”
Just as he reached it, though, the door swung open. Bright light spilled into the hallway, forcing Al to shield his eyes. A pair of shadowy figures dressed in nurses’ scrubs grabbed the reporter and dragged her inside.
“Hey, what are you doing?” the woman shrieked as one of the nurses stuck a needle in her arm.
“Relax, you’re being liberated.”
The woman went limp. The other nurse took a marker and put an X on the woman’s temple as the door swung shut.
“What the hell was that?” Al asked.
“The price of complicity.”
Dan turned and held up his red card. “Of course, non-conformity has its own price.” A strange light appeared in his eyes. “I’ve got to go, but I wanted you to have something.” He handed his cigarettes to him.
“I don’t smoke.”
The older man barked out a laugh. “Doesn’t matter. You will eventually.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll find out.”
“Everyone keeps saying that, but I don’t understand what that means.”
Dan shrugged and nodded toward the cigarettes. “Rest assured, you will. See you on the other side.” He turned to face the security guard and held up his red card.
The guard, soundless and with minimal movement, pointed to Al’s right toward the door, which was black and had the label “D527” on it. Dan pulled it open, stepped inside, and turned around to look back the way he came.
Al waved, but Dan didn’t respond. The door slid shut.
“Weird,” Al replied. He tried to step around the guard and head toward the exit. The man put his arm out and stopped him.
“You don’t have a green card, so you must wait, then go there,” the guard pointed to Al’s left, toward a wooden door labeled “CR.”
“What am I waiting for?”
A deep hum erupted from the walls, along with an ear-piercing high-pitched wail. While the security guard did not seem to notice, Al had to cover his ears. Good God, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Thankfully, it did not last.
The guard opened the door marked D527. A brown bag sat on the floor. He picked it up and turned to Al. “Take this and go.” He pointed toward the door with CR on it.
Al opened the door and stepped through. He blinked. The conference room entrance was just to his right, with a long line waiting to enter. Many had lanyards, but some did not. Dr. Soros grabbed his arm. “There you are. Get in line. The session begins in five minutes.”
“But I just attended the session a few minutes ago,” Al retorted.
Soros did not answer. Instead, he sailed through the conference room door. In his place stood Dr. Castro, hole punch in hand.
What was going on? Everything was repeating itself, except this time, he had a lanyard and a bag like Dan did the first time they met. Wait. The sack. He looked at it. The letters DA were stamped on it. He opened it. Inside were some green wafers. How strange. He picked one up and sniffed it. It had the same sickly-sweet smell as the wafers he had found earlier, along with something else he could easily recognize—cigarettes.