Edition 1: Rationalized by Larry Hodges
“Rationalized” was the winner of the 2011 Story Quest Short Story Contest. Dystopian short fiction has a long history, the modern era examples stretching back to the late 1940s, and some of the best science fiction fall into this sub-genre. The judges of the Story Quest contest determined that Larry Hodges’ piece, Rationalized, took a fresh approach, and carried a clear and brutal message. Hodges, a seasoned wordsmith, asks the question, what do I do if the odds are overwhelmingly against me? I’ll leave the answer to those who read his short story. GH
How nice—to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.
~ Kurt Vonnegut
It had been a long Saturday morning, but the training was over. Now Dr. Bruce watched Jeremy and his friend Lara as they played games and drank lemonade. Both actions were illegal.
He took a sip of the chemically-created lemonade he made himself. It was a break from the dreary diet of nutricubes and water, the only approved food or drink allowed or needed. He wondered if actual lemon trees still existed.
Jeremy came over. “Dad, where’s the puppy?” he whispered.
They’d “borrowed” it from the puppy farm.
“I kept it a secret like you asked, but when are you going to tell us what it’s for?”
“Soon,” Bruce said.
He could already see in his son the hardening facial features of a rationalized adult. When one fakes it enough, it becomes part of you.
Jeremy had turned thirteen on June 25, 2105, one month ago. As required by law, doctors had been scheduled to cut into his brain—the amygdala, the ventral striatum, parts of the prefrontal cortex, and other areas—to rationalize him. The operation would have removed his son’s emotions, as required when a child’s brain developed enough for the surgery, legally set at age thirteen for everyone.
They would have turned his son into a monster, like everyone else.
Fortunately, Bruce was able to change the hospital rotation. He got the assignment, forged the necessary records, faked the surgery with his gamma knife, and tattooed “A” for adult on Jeremy’s cheek. The only witnesses were the robotic assistants, and they weren’t talking.
If another doctor had done the surgery, his son would have joined the joyless masses. Except Jeremy knew too much. Could Bruce have called Angela and her deadly scarlet laser on his own son? Angela had taken care of a number of “problems” over the years, but despite his training, Bruce’s hands trembled at the thought of calling the assassin.
“Did you bring a puppy here?” asked Arnold, one of the parents. Jeremy had whispered too loudly.
“Yeah—I have something planned for it.”
“Isn’t that counter-productive?” Arnold persisted, his face impassive, but his eyes lively. “A puppy brings out deep-seated emotions, the last thing we want.”
He’d better be careful about his eyes in public, Bruce thought. “You’re right. But there’s a certain…exercise we’ll be doing with it.”
The CPR class Bruce was supposedly teaching was a cover for meetings of the Emotal Underground: adults with emotions, and their children. They used a fake waiting list to make sure only Emotal families attended.
Several dozen of them met every Saturday in the spotlessly clean High School cafeteria from nine in the morning until noon. The bland stench of nutricubes filled the air. Other than the children’s laughter and the conversations of the adults, there was no sound. Playing music was too risky as someone might hear it from outside. Bruce sat at a table at the front with the other parents, occasionally joining in the gossip.
The first two and a half hours were for emotional control drills. While it was good refresher practice for the adults, it was primarily for the children. Someday, they too would have to fake being rationalized.
The last half hour was for fun and games. It was the only time outside the privacy of their homes that any of the Emotal Underground could just let go, enjoy themselves, and really feel alive. It wasn’t rational and it wasn’t legal, but it was fun.
Of course, even rationals weren’t completely unemotional, despite their claims. The brain is a complex organ, and the operation wasn’t perfect. It supposedly left you emotionless, and yet left a hint of biting sarcasm. Or was that just an Emotal’s reaction to pure logic?
Bruce had a surprise planned for the end of today’s session. He’d put the puppy in a box in a closet so nobody would hear it. Now he retrieved the box and put it on the floor.
The children gathered around. They all wore the standard plain black pants and shirts, with hair cropped short, like everyone else in society. Those thirteen and over had the red “A” branded on their right cheek, falsely marking them as rationalized adults.
“What type is it?” Jeremy asked.
“It’s a Labrador Retriever,” Bruce said.
The brown puppy looked about with its bright, almond eyes.
“Let me hold it!” Lara said, grabbing it as she oohed and aahed.
Bruce frowned inwardly at her lack of emotional control. She’d argue that she could turn it on and off when needed, but too much emotion in private could lead to bad habits in public. She’d be thirteen in six months. She was simply too emotional, and Bruce worried that one day she’d let her guard slip. The surprise he had in store for the group would be a good test for her.
One of the younger children suggested the puppy needed to be rationalized, and Lara was faking it.
“Scalpel!” she said, holding her hand out.
“Scalpel!” Jeremy said, handing her a pencil.
Bruce watched as they finished the “operation.” But the operation apparently didn’t take–the puppy began whimpering.
“I think he’s hungry,” Lara said.
“He can have my nutricubes,” Jeremy said. “Please!”
He took a gulp of lemonade. “From now on, I live on lemonade.”
“He’s an Emotal!” Lara said as the puppy continued to whimper.
“Call the police!” Jeremy made siren sounds as the younger children laughed.
It was time.
“Let me see the puppy for a minute,” Bruce said.
He picked it up; the puppy stopped whimpering and looked at him with its big eyes beneath floppy ears. He picked up one of the two cloth sacks he’d brought, the empty one, and placed the puppy inside. He put it back on the ground under the table, behind the box, out of sight of the children. He could see the puppy wiggling about inside.
He’d spent the night before practicing, putting a stone surrounded by a bundle of clothing in the sack and slamming it against the floor, pretending it was the puppy. He’d imagined the puppy’s high-pitched yelps coming to a sudden halt, and the sound of the skull getting crushed. He didn’t want to do it, but the lesson needed to be taught.
He turned to face the group. “Did you all like the puppy?”
As a group, they said, “Yes!”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.
He grabbed the bulging sack and held it in the air over his head for a moment. Then, with a sudden motion, he slammed it like a whip against the cement floor.
One of the youngest let out a shriek; several began crying. They were years away from age thirteen, but obviously needed a lot more training.
He examined Jeremy’s and Lara’s faces. Jeremy’s was emotionless; he was a good student. Lara’s was almost too impassive. It was a subtle thing, but Bruce could tell the difference between non-emotion and forced non-emotion. She’d need extra practice.
Then the puppy began whimpering from the sack that still lay on the floor under the table, and the group listened in confusion. He’d switched sacks. Bruce picked up the original sack and poured out the puppy, which ambled toward the children.
“Some of you didn’t handle that very well,” Bruce said. “You’ve got to be able to deal with that type of situation—it could happen at any time. If any of you lets your guard down like that in public, you risk not just yourself, but all of us—your family, friends, our entire community. Remember the training!”
“That was horrible the way you tricked us!” Lara exclaimed even as her face slowly turned to stone.
“Good drill,” Jeremy said. Several other parents voiced their agreement.
There were a few minutes left, so he let the children return to their games, though they seemed a bit more somber than before. He felt guilty about ruining their fun; perhaps next time he’d spring such surprises during the regular training sessions. And yet, it was during their play time that they were most vulnerable, and that’s when he’d find out who needed extra training.
“Time to go,” Bruce finally said to the group.
“But we were having fun,” Jeremy said. He and Lara were playing Laugh and Lose.
“Sorry,” Bruce said. “Okay, everyone, you know the drill.”
“Yes, we know,” said Lara, with classic thirteen-year-old sarcasm. “Empty your feelings. Think cold thoughts.”
Exactly what she should have done when he’d “killed” the puppy, he thought.
“Be a dweeb,” Jeremy added. Lara laughed.
When everyone’s face was sufficiently carved in granite, they re-entered the world of the rational. It was noon on a sunny Spring day. Cars zipped back and forth on the street in front, no doubt going about logical activities.
Jeremy and Lara marched in lockstep toward the parking lot across the street, with Bruce a few feet behind, carrying the sack of clothing and the box with the puppy. He liked the puppy, and wanted to keep it as a pet, but knew that would be impossible to explain. Dogs were functional beings, and this puppy would someday be used for search and rescue missions. He needed to return it to the puppy farm before it was missed.
The puppy suddenly jumped against the side of the box, and Bruce almost dropped the box as it fell over sideways. The top opened. Before he could react, the puppy had jumped free. It fell to the ground, yelping as it hit the ground. It ran toward the street.
“I’ll get him,” Lara said as she ran after it.
The puppy ran into the street, closely followed by Lara, intent upon the puppy.
Bruce saw the red pickup truck gliding down the street. The world seemed to slow down as the floating truck bore down on her. He opened his mouth to cry out as horror engulfed him. Then his well-honed conditioned response to emotion kicked in, and he reflexively froze, mouth open but silent.
The truck honked. Lara turned and saw it just as it crashed into her. Her body sailed ten feet, hitting the ground head first with a sick cracking sound.
His years of conditioning played out as he silenced the screaming in his mind, the pounding of his heart. He walked slowly toward the street.
A crowd formed around Lara’s limp body. The puppy ran about by Lara’s head, whimpering. A woman knelt and felt for a pulse.
She dropped the limp arm. “I’m a doctor. She’s dead. Broke her neck.”
A very old man nodded. “Silly girl. She was careless. Didn’t look both ways.”
“Time of death is 12:04 PM,” the doctor said. “I’ll alert the authorities to pick up the body. It’ll be easy to clean up. Not much bleeding.”
Bruce and Jeremy stared at the body, stone-faced on the outside. Bruce kneeled and picked up the blood-spattered puppy, getting blood on his hands and shirt. He put the squirming puppy back in the box.
“Are you the father?” the doctor asked.
Bruce shook his head. “Her father’s not here today.”
“If you see him,” she said, “tell him to notify social services of the population opening. He may qualify for a replacement child. Perhaps he’ll do a better job this time teaching basic traffic safety.”
Bruce silently counted to ten.
“I drove the truck that killed the girl,” a young man said. “I need her insurance info to cover the damage to the front of the truck. It was an old 2084 floater, so maybe I’ll get a new one.”
Then he peered closely at Jeremy. “Is something wrong with you?”
“There’s a tear running down his face,” the old man said. He stepped closer and tapped the “A” on Jeremy’s cheek. “Yet you’re an adult.”
Bruce fought the urge to wipe his son’s tear away. It was too late. Others gathered around, including several of the Emotal parents, their faces as blank as the others. How could Jeremy let this happen? He was such a good student! All those practice sessions…
The doctor pointed at Jeremy. “He’s an Emotal. We need to hold him and call the police.”
As one, the crowd moved toward Jeremy, reaching for him.
“Lara!” Jeremy cried.
He yanked his arms free and nearly fought his way to her with a whirlwind of wild punches and kicks. It took Bruce and a dozen bystanders, including Arnold and several other Emotal parents, to restrain Jeremy’s struggling form until the police arrived, sirens blaring.
“Father, help me!”
Tears flowed freely down Jeremy’s face. Bruce averted his eyes.
“You’d thank us later,” the doctor told Jeremy, “except later you’ll realize that’s an emotional response and not necessary.”
“Amazing that our ancestors were like that,” the old man commented as police led the handcuffed Jeremy away to be rationalized. “The passion of an animal.”
“Completely out of control,” Arnold said, his dead eyes staring at Bruce.
Fighting the urge to wince, Bruce gave him a quick nod.
Bruce gave the truck driver the contact information for Lara’s father so he could get the needed insurance info. Then he watched as the police car with Jeremy drove off. He considered rushing to the hospital. But he knew it was too late to change the hospital rotation and get the assignment.
Soon Jeremy would wake up, emotionless and clear-thinking. They’d ask how he’d hidden his condition, and he’d do the rational thing and tell them all about the Emotal Underground. They’d learn how Bruce faked operations on Emotal family members. How he forged papers to show that deceased doctors did the fake operations, in case they were caught.
They’d all be rationalized.
He picked up the box with the struggling puppy, stepped over Lara’s body, crossed the street, and got into the privacy of his car. He let the puppy out of the box. It fumbled about on his lap.
Bruce felt under the seat and found the contraband photo of his son. He stared at it, watching the face turn into a gray smudge as his tears trickled down. The puppy lapped up the salty water, further smearing the photo.
Empty your feelings. Think cold thoughts.
Do the rational thing.
He slouched down in the seat. The puppy found it could now reach his head by propping itself up against his chest. It licked his face.
He put the puppy back in the box and put it aside.
It took three tries for his trembling hands to punch in Angela’s number on his personal phone.
Larry Hodges is an active member of the SFWA with over 50 short story sales. His story “The Awakening” was the unanimous grand prize winner at the 2010 Garden State Horror Writers Short Story Competition. He’s a graduate of the six-week 2006 Odyssey Writing Workshop, the 2007 Orson Scott Card Literary Boot Camp, and the two-week 2008 Taos Toolbox Writing Workshop. In the world of non-fiction, he’s a full-time writer with four books and over 1300 published articles in over 120 different publications. He is also a member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame (Google it!), and once beat someone with an ice cube as a racket. Visit him at www.larryhodges.org.