Winner: Honorable Mention
Arisia 2013 Student Writing Contest
The sign shimmered in the sunlight. Emerson broke his stare to read the melting words:
Anxiety and paranoia gathered in Emerson’s mind, but he quickly stifled it. The metal of the door in front of him was surprising cool as he pushed it open and stepped inside the towering high-rise building.
Emerson raised his hand to his face, recoiling from the bright, fluorescent lights inside. Despite having been outside in the sun, the lights burned his sensitive eyes. The vacancy of the room was staggering. Emerson gazed across the vast office, the humming of the lights clawed at his ears like trapped insects. The line in front of him caught his attention.
“Excuse me. Is this the line for criminal rehabilitation?” Emerson asked politely to the man in front of him.
“Only line in here.”
“Thanks,” mumbled Emerson.
Something about the room made Emerson’s hairs stand on end. Like some sort of internal alarm, Emerson couldn’t suppress his thoughts.
I’m just being paranoid, thought Emerson. His mind began to wander. What a concept. All felonies committed previous to 2060 wiped clean. An entire criminal record, burned up, turned to nothing more significant than a pile of ash.
He could see a crisp manila envelope in his mind’s eye, the word “EMERSON” written in bold. His mouth formed a subtle smile as he watched the edges of the file smolder, then burst into flame. The flickering light of the burning papers cast a shadow against the wall, dancing wildly across the room.
“Are you in line, sir?”
The sound of the man’s voice drew Emerson back to reality, back to the hollow room in front of him. He blinked.
“Yes. I am.”
The man took his place behind Emerson. The room was silent, aside from the mechanical “next” that hovered in the air from the receptionists admitting people at the back end of the room. Emerson could feel the man’s eyes on his back, melting through his shirt and scorching his skin. He turned abruptly.
“What are you in for?”
“Excuse me?” asked the man nervously, startled by Emerson’s advance.
Emerson apologized, not realizing the rudeness in which he had addressed the man and extended his hand, “I’m Emerson.”
The man hesitated slightly before taking Emerson’s hand in his. “I’m Dylan.”
“Pleasure,” said Emerson. “Now, what I meant was what crime did you commit that would impel you to come here?” He thought about how forward he was being towards this man he had just met. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he added politely.
Dylan blinked vacantly. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
“That’s fine,” said Emerson. As he turned his back to Dylan, he glimpsed him wringing his hands nervously. The feeling of paranoia licked at Emerson’s mind like a flame below his feet.
“Do you mind if I cut ahead of you in line?” whispered Dylan.
Emerson’s eyes narrowed. “What for?”
Dylan was wringing his hands again. “I’ve got to get home to dinner.”
Emerson glanced at his watch. 12:00 noon. “Sure,” said Emerson, sliding coolly to the side.
Dylan stepped anxiously in front of Emerson. Nobody seemed to notice, nor care about the transaction that just occurred. Emerson looked curiously at Dylan, as if his back would reveal something his face couldn’t.
Oblivious to the time that had gone by, Emerson found himself next to be rehabilitated. He watched Dylan being escorted to one of the five corridors in the back. Emerson looked to the receptionist in front of him. Her face was expressionless and her hair, cut conservatively, matched her bland apparel. Behind her stood two guards. Emerson looked around; behind each receptionist stood two armed guards. Behind them stood two more guards, then two more at the entrance of each corridor. Emerson approached the metallic desk as Dylan disappeared behind the corner.
“Emerson Fisk?” muttered the receptionist
“Yes, that’s me.”
“One moment.” A faint whine, a beep, and then a click. A section of the desk slid away. “Right this way.”
Emerson’s eye caught the faintest red, orange illumination escape around the corner. He stopped after passing through the desk.
“What was that?” said Emerson, anxiety creeping into his voice. The guards were already marching towards him.
“Please, sir, just follow the guards. Next!”
Emerson turned to the guards. “What was that light I saw?”
Their appearance spoke for them: both had matching clean shaven faces, military cropped hair, and set jawline that accented the uniform cut of their shirts and pants. Their polished shoes reflected the same power that emanated from their rifles. Emerson allowed himself to be led to the entrance of the corridor before stopping.
“This way, sir.” The stern, gruff voice of the guard wasn’t enough to move Emerson. He took a deep breath through his nose, and paled. Fear sprung into his eyes.
“What’s that smell?” whispered Emerson. A guard stepped towards him.
“Come with us, sir.”
Emerson stumbled backwards. “No.”
The guard took another step forward, asking again for Emerson to come with him. Emerson turned to the receptionist behind him. The attention of the room was focused on him. The crowd’s eyes burned with curiosity as he walked briskly towards the desk.
“What are you doing with us?” he said, panic stricken. The guards seized both his arms. “No,” he breathed, pulling against the guards.
“Sir, calm down and come this way.”
“No!” he shouted, “you can’t do this!”
A voice from the crowd drew his attention. “Do what?”
Emerson’s eyes searched frantically for the voice. The guards were still leading him towards the corridor. He caught the expectant look of a gruff looking man in line, and locked eyes with him.
“They’re burning us alive. Cremating us!” Emerson turned to the guards. “I have a wife and kids. You can’t do this to me!”
A hushed silence enveloped the room. The mechanical “next” ceased. The guards halted abruptly. Nobody moved except for Emerson, who was trying to escape the grasp of the guards. He broke free briefly, only to be seized again and lifted off his feet. His screams of terror echoed mercilessly throughout the building.
A sound of thunder filled the room, and Emerson fell to the floor. He felt the grip on his left arm loosen, then slide away. The guard crumpled to the floor, glossy, red blood spilling from the hole in his chest.
Emerson looked up to where the shot had come from. The man stood calmly, the gun held confidently in his hand. The smoke dissipated into the air, and an acrid smell of gunpowder filled Emerson’s nose. The second guard lifted his rifle, but two more shots threw him to the ground, the rifle sliding easily from his hands.
Emerson’s eyes caught those of the man, still standing calmly. The gun seemed a part of his hand, its smooth, metallic surface undistinguishable from his skin. His relaxed poise was that of a practiced criminal.
As Emerson ran for the cover of the receptionist’s desk, he saw the man fall to the floor, a shot between his eyes shattering his existence. Emerson ducked behind the desk as more shots erupted from the crowd. He looked at the receptionist beside him, who seemed to be praying silently. He reached forward to tap her shoulder but recoiled when her eyes opened suddenly. She looked directly into his eyes and smiled before standing from the cover of the desk. Her body shuddered, then fell to the ground beside Emerson, the eerie smile still painted across her face.
Emerson could hear a faint beeping nearby. He strained his ears, trying to block out the chaos around him. He pressed the side of his face against the desk, struggling to locate the beeping. From inside the desk, like a faint heartbeat, he could hear it. It continued for a few more seconds before ending abruptly, only to be replaced by a resonating ring that forced Emerson’s ear away from the desk.
The air in the room seemed to hiss as the temperature climbed dramatically. Sweat began to form on Emerson’s face. His brow furrowed, trying desperately to connect the ringing and the rising temperature. The ringing continued, piercing his thoughts and preventing him from focusing.
A deep hum filled the room and then a roar. Everyone fell silent, except for the hissing air, which seemed to have grown louder. The temperature continued climbing; sweat was now pouring from Emerson’s face. Nobody moved or made a sound for what seemed like an eternity. From the depths of the building came a great cacophony of sound. There were no screams. There was no time. Only a blinding light and fire. Then darkness.