The stillness of space surrounded Phil when he woke up. He looked around and could see nothing. He directed his hand to move in front of his face and touch his nose, but he felt nothing.
Pinpricks of light appeared. They streamed around him, as if he moved quickly forward.
More lights came, large fuzzy patches of different colors, soft water paint blobs mixed with cotton candy.
Then everything became clear. He was seated in a circle with twelve other young men, and an older man in a slightly larger chair faced him.
“Welcome, Phil. Good morning. You are in Reeducation Camp Five, on Patmos. My name is Cedric Buchner. I lead our discussion circle here.”
“Yes. Let’s start by trying to gauge your understanding of political theory.”
Phil shrugged. All the other young men stared at him. He gulped, nervously.
“I’m not very political.”
“Nonsense. Of course you’re political, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Now, I’m going to say a word, and I’d like to know how it makes you feel. Ready? Collectivism.”
Everyone stared at Phil for a moment. He looked around, bewildered.
“Uh . . . okay?”
Phil shrugged again. He said, “Am I supposed to feel anything?”
“Let’s try some others. Freedom.”
A spark flashed in Phil’s eyes. Briefly, but visibly.
“I see,” Cedric said. “How about liberty? Democracy? Will of the people?”
Phil swallowed, but said nothing.
Cedric took a deep breath. He said, “Well, I see we have our work cut out for us, in your case at least. Alright, gentlemen. We’ll meet again tonight before lights out.”
The room with the seats and the other men winked out of existence.
Phil opened his eyes in reality, only to see rough wooden planks just a few centimeters away. He tilted his head up, careful not to bump into the narrow bunk, and slid to the floor. Dozens of other young men slid out of their cramped sleeping areas. The bunks stretched six high, and the room felt far too small for the number of people it held.
A short man with receding black hair smiled up at him as he got out from the bunk below Phil.
“Who’d you get for Circle Talk?”
“Um . . . Cedric Buchner.”
“Ah, Buchner. He’s not bad. He’ll try to trip you up though, find out if you’re lying. Hard to convince him you’re ready to go back into society. You could have gotten Duhring. He’s an idealist. Believes communism could actually work if it was done right. Of course, try to nail him down on a time it actually was done right! Ha!”
He smiled and for a moment Phil thought maybe this was an elaborate trap.
“Don’t worry!” The short guy slapped Phil on the back. “They don’t pay much attention to us here in the bunks. They don’t pay much attention to us anytime outside of Circle Talk. That’s when they’re doing all the brainwave measurements and such.”
They followed the crowd out the door and into the courtyard. A table was set up with one server bot holding a ladle near a large pot of something liquid. The men queued up, grabbing bowls and letting the bot fill them.
“What is that?” Phil said.
“Breakfast. Name’s Topher, by the way. What’s yours?”
“Please to meet you, Phil. It’s some kind of nutritious sludge they feed us. Don’t ask what’s in it. Prolly best not to know, if you know what I mean. I suspect it’s got soy, and whatever else is available ground up in there to help the taste. After you’ve been here a while you can start to discern slight variations at times. It’s still bland, regardless.”
“So, what’s for lunch?”
Topher laughed. “Sludge! Supper, too. You really are new, aren’t you? Don’t worry, just renounce your freedom-loving capitalist democratic ideals, and you can go back home. The trick is, convincing our teacher overlords you really have changed your ideological leanings. And that’s not easy. Trust me, I know.”
Phil grabbed a bowl, then stuck it out and let the bot pour thick, steaming soup in it. It looked yellow, with a green tint. He brought it closer to his face to sniff it, but could not smell anything.
Topher accepted a serving from the bot and together they headed for an empty spot on the grass. There were no spoons; everyone sipped from the bowls directly.
A thought crossed Phil’s mind. He said, “So, how long have you been here, Topher?”
“Me? This is my seventh year.”
Phil stared at him in shock.
Topher nodded. “Yup. I still haven’t convinced them that I embrace the collective mindset. Not that I’m trying to.”
“Does anybody ever leave?”
“Oh, yeah. A few guys are out of here after a few weeks. They embrace everything they hear in Circle Talk, pass the online tests and they’re sent home fresh-faced and subservient to the state.”
Phil took his first sip of the soup. It was indeed mostly tasteless.
He said, “But, you’re still here. Surely you could tell the teachers what they wanted to hear by now.”
“Oh, they test you. They see if you are just saying what they want you to say, or if you really believe it. It’s possible to fake it. You just have to believe it while you’re here. Believe it for a moment. When you get home you can go back to being a free thinker again. Lots of guys do that, you know. They go home, keep their mouths shut, stay out of trouble. They never bother the state again because they never want to come back here. If you want to go home, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
“But . . . you haven’t?”
“Nah. There’s lots of us here. We’re lifers, man. We ain’t never leaving Patmos.”
Phil swallowed more soup. He frowned as he thought about what Topher said.
Phil said, “Why? Just . . . do the trick. Do whatever it takes and leave. Like you said, go back to thinking the way you want to think when you get home.”
Topher shook his head.
“I can’t do it, man. I just can’t lie to myself. Socialism is not better than capitalism. Totalitarianism is not better than freedom. Liberty and free will are the single greatest pursuits humans can strive for. I’m not going to sacrifice my personal ideology for the right to leave here.”
Topher tipped his bowl back and swallowed the last of his soup. He wiped his mouth on his arm and smiled up at Phil.
“Besides, the more of us who stay here, the more strains are put on the state. We’re already overcrowded and word has it the other reeducation camps are bursting at the seams, too. The more of us who refuse to leave, the bigger problem the state has in keeping us. If we demonstrate back home, they shoot us. But if we go to reeducation camps and stay here . . . well, let’s just say we can overwhelm their resources and put passive-aggressive pressure on them. This is our safe way to protest.”
Phil thought about it for a moment.
He said, “I suppose that works, so long as they don’t get fed up, line us all up and shoot everybody.”
Topher laughed. He said, “Nah, they ain’t gonna do that. Billings is an old softie. Truly believes in his heart he can get you to become a collectivist if he just talks with you long enough. The reeducation camps were his idea. They’re his baby. He’s not going to let them become death camps.”
A guard bot approached, his blaster aimed at the crowd as if contravening Topher’s last statement.
It said, “Everybody up. Morning work detail. Head to your assigned duty stations.”
As one, the men stood and brought their bowls back to the table. Then they filed out after the bot who led the way toward the first duty station.
“Think about joining us,” Topher said as they started walking. “We’re a loosely organized group of like-minded individuals.”
“What do I have to do, sign a pledge or something?”
“Nah. Just hold true to your ideals. Never compromise. Stand for freedom. It’s worth making a stand, even a small one like ours. Life has to mean something, man. The ideology of liberty, and the rights of an individual . . . that’s worth fighting for. That’s worth sacrificing for. If you give in to them and go back home, you’ll regret it the rest of your life.”
Phil chuckled. He said, “When you put it like that, how can I say no?”