Jonas Cho was a man much like any other. He worked a somewhat unsatisfying job, a job that allowed him to clothe and feed and house his family and to luxuriate in frivolities once or twice a week. His grand dreams and desires had shrunk to a size appropriate for his age, made nostalgic and somewhat childish by the need to provide the necessities of life, and he only indulged them in his increasingly rare spare time. He wasn’t particularly happy. But he wasn’t particularly unhappy, either. Most of the time, he was just tired – ever since the baby, a good night’s sleep had become something almost unimaginable.
And once again much like any other, he wasn’t a particularly angry man.
Lately, though, he’d found that his temper was growing shorter. He’d found himself getting snappy, tetchy, impatient. The little annoyances and frustrations that are a fundamental fact of life, annoyances and frustrations that should be easily shrugged off or accommodated, had instead been instantly setting him on edge. Something so simple as a stranger bumping into him on the footpath now bothered him far more than it should, as if it was a personal attack rather than an accident. The same thing happened if he was cut-off in traffic or if the person ahead of him at the ATM or the supermarket checkout took too long. He’d find himself cursing aloud at the car in front, or shouting at the person ahead, or just sweating and shaking, his fists clenched and his heart beating too fast.
Of course, every time one of this happened, every time he lost his cool and gave in to his anger, the sensor in his car or the sensors built into almost every public place would start beeping. The flat synthetic voice would follow, coming from his car stereo or from a lamppost or a park bench or a set of traffic lights or the wall of a building or the footpath itself. The words were always the same, only the numbers changed.
“Jonas Cho,” it would say. “One credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only fifteen credits remain before you are in excess.”
One morning, Jonas awoke feeling slightly anxious. His workplace was officially connecting to the grid that day, something that he had been dreading – work had always been a place where he could vent his frustration or bend the ear of his forgiving colleagues in an attempt to offload. But no longer. The decision had been made by upper management; the workers on the floor thought that it was a ridiculous idea, the kind that could only be dreamed up by someone who had forgotten how it felt to get their hands dirty, and forgotten what it was like to be constantly surrounded by ringing phones and raised voices and the charged air of people risking incredible sums of money.
But these workers were just grunts and their protests were ignored and they were effectively told to either put up with it or take a walk.
Jonas lay in bed for a minute, trying to calm down, trying to slow his racing heart by sheer will power. Sally, his wife, clattered around in the kitchen and the lounge room, taking care of the baby and getting ready for their day. Jonas lay there and listened to her make herself busy, and he felt guilty for being so lazy. These two things combined – his fear of losing his cool at work and his guilt at being a slack househusband – made him groan aloud, and he thought about calling in sick. But then remembered the voice-analysis apps built into the work phones, apps that could differentiate between a voice that was actually sick and a voice that was lying.
And so Jonas finally got up, even though he was still pretty sleepy.
He threw on a dressing gown, shuffled into the hallway, stopped at the toilet and did his thing, shuffled into the bathroom and washed his hands and face, and then shuffled into the kitchen and collapsed into a seat at the breakfast bar. Sally had already made breakfast. Luther, their son, lay asleep in his crib.
“Morning,” Jonas said to Sally.
She set a cup of coffee down in front of him, and he took a slow sip.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You’re welcome. You feeling okay?”
He took another slow sip before answering, and started to properly wake up.
“I am now. Thanks.”
“Sure I’m sure.”
She smiled at him, and then tousled his hair and passed him his breakfast.
“Right then. I’ll leave you to get ready.”
Sally turned away and started washing the dishes. Jonas finished off his breakfast and his coffee, slid the plate and the cup into the sink, kissed Sally on the cheek, and then bent down and just stared at Luther for a moment.
It was times like these that he felt truly happy. Staring at his son, at the innocence and joy in his smile, at the way his son looked at the world as if it was only beautiful and good and bright; these things made everything else worth it. They made him able to face the day, even if seizing it was beyond him.
Time ticked on, though, and so he stood back up and kissed Sally again and then left the kitchen and had a shower. When he was done, he found that she had laid out his suit and made him lunch.
“Thanks, sweetie,” he said, plucking the brown paper bag off the bench and stuffing it into his briefcase.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to keep thanking me.”
She didn’t look at him as she spoke. She was feeding the baby, or trying to, anyway – Luther was wriggling and squirming and carrying on.
“You just take it easy out there, okay?”
“Okay. Love you…”
“I love you too,” she said, still not looking at him, still struggling with the baby.
Jonas’ mood soured before he even got to work.
Just before his train to the city was about to depart, another snap strike shut his line down; running late, he returned to his car and began to drive in, only to get stuck in a traffic jam five minutes later; after a half-hour spent crawling along, he realised that a random inspection was the cause of the jam, and he dutifully passed through the checkpoint and presented his papers to the droids and narrowly avoided having his car declared unroadworthy. And when he pulled into the cavernous maze beneath his workplace, a maze that served as its car-park, he spent a long time circling-circling-circling while trying to find a free spot. His anger grew and grew during the whole trip, and he occasionally cursed aloud. Sometimes these curses were directed at other people and sometimes at himself. They were few and far between at first, but after a while they became steady and repetitive, until he was letting loose long streams of shit-fuck-bastard-arsehole-dickhead, as if one word alone simply wasn’t enough to express his rage.
The beep of the dashboard sensor and the flat synthetic voice rang out so often that they might as well have been some kind of strange chant.
His allotment was almost empty by the time he walked into his workplace, a suite on the fortieth floor of an anonymous grey office building.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said to his coworkers and his boss, who were all gathered in the conference room.
His boss rolled her eyes and tapped on her watch. She didn’t say “hi” and neither did his coworkers. No-one even waved or smiled. Instead, they were all looking into the middle distance or into their laps, and most of them were fidgeting or tapping their feet or drumming their fingers – the room was charged with their pent-up anxiety and barely-suppressed anger, the same anxiety and anger that Jonas felt.
“Sorry,” he said a second time, and then quickly took a seat.
Everyone continued ignoring him.
“Okay, so that’s that,” his boss said. “You all know the drill, you all know how these things work. I don’t expect today to go that smoothly – it’ll take a while for us to get used to working with them, a few stuff ups are inevitable. But I’m sorry to say that the request I put in for some extra credit has been turned down. That means that any infractions will be coming out of your own accounts.”
“Bullshit,” someone said.
A beep split the air, followed by a flat synthetic voice.
“Lucas Shonenberg, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only forty-five credits remain before you are in excess.”
“Well, we know that they work,” Jonas’ boss said. “So let’s get to it.”
People started leaving the conference room. Some exchanged small talk and chitchat, while some just stared straight ahead and tried to keep it together. Jonas trailed in their wake, dragging his feet and wishing he was somewhere else.
“Jonas, a quick word,” his boss said, catching up with him in the corridor.
He followed her into her office, and she shut the door behind him. Jonas raised his eyebrow and smiled at her.
“Is it hanky-panky time?” he asked.
They had worked together for years, and theirs was an easygoing friendship with only a tiny undercurrent of sexual tension, something that they both enjoyed riffing on when they were somewhere private.
But this time she crossed her arms over her chest and looked him in the eye.
“Cut the shit,” she said, barking the words. “I’m not in the fucking mood.”
Beep-beep-beep went the sensor.
“Marjorie Vanderman, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only two credits remain before you are in excess,” the flat synthetic voice said.
“Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t we?”
Marjorie looked at him for a moment, her eyes cold. But he wasn’t intimidated by her authority over him and so he smiled a cheesy smile, and she finally gave in.
“You’re unbelievable,” she said.
“That I am. So, what’s up?”
“Jonas, I have to officially warn you about being late – today makes the eighth time this month.”
Jonas stiffened, and his heart beat a little faster. His second warning this year. His last warning. He felt sick at the thought of potentially losing his job, a pit-of-the-gut sickness.
“Jonas, you okay?” Marjorie asked. “You look a little tense.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I’m fine, it’s just not what I was expecting.”
“Well, I’ve been told to crack down a bit, especially now that the sensors have been installed. And you just happened to show up late again. So here we are. For what it’s worth, I don’t really want to do this.”
Jonas relaxed a little.
“You’re welcome. And I’m serious. You’re one of our best, and you always get shit done. So what if you’re a bit tardy every now and then?”
Jonas tried to get some perspective; it was just a warning, after all, and if he could keep his shit together then he wouldn’t attract another one. But the general tension of the day made this a hard thing to do, and so he merely ended up making excuses.
“It’s the baby, Marjorie, that’s all. It’s a bloody madhouse in the mornings…”
Marjorie smiled sympathetically.
“I get it. It’s okay.”
He knew that she didn’t get it; single and childless, she couldn’t hope to understand his position. But still, her sympathy helped.
“Thanks, Marjorie. Really, thanks a lot.”
“Like I said: it’s okay. If it were up to me, I’d just let it be. But it’s not up to me – the boss upstairs is the one calling the shots.”
“So, consider yourself officially warned. They’ll probably keep a close eye on you for the next few days, just to make sure that you’re not slacking off or losing the plot. But other than that, things should be fine.”
Marjorie abruptly picked a pile of papers up off her desk and tidied them.
“And…” Jonas prompted.
“And that’s all, you can go.”
Jonas stood up and turned to walk away.
“One last thing,” Marjorie said.
Jonas turned and looked back at her. This was one of her habits, a habit that had long amused and frustrated him – every time she dismissed someone, just as they were about to leave her presence, she remembered one last piece of information that she had to impart.
“I knew it,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”
They smiled at each other, and then Marjorie became serious:
“Look, before you go, keep in mind – if you max out your allotment and forget to top-up and then get penalised, that counts as grounds for a warning.”
“You what?” Jonas asked, his voice hard.
“That’s the word from upstairs. ‘Failure to do your part and take responsibility for your anger is grounds for an official warning’ is how they put it. Either way, it means the same thing.”
“You’re fucking kidding me.”
Beep-beep-beep went the sensor, and then the flat synthetic voice spoke up:
“Jonas Cho. One credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only three credits remain before you are in excess.”
Jonas rolled his eyes. Marjorie smiled at him.
“It looks like I’m not the only one who’s cutting it fine,” she said.
The rest of Jonas’ day was a disaster, a write-off, a wreck and a ruin. To him, the world felt as if it had been dipped in treacle. His paranoia and anxiety and short temper had left him hyper-aware and edgy: every sound was a bellow, every movement an attack, every puff of breath a gust of wind, and everything else seemed to pass by in slow motion. His coworkers found him to be both distant and snappy, and he felt it himself, his mood alternating between spacy and aggressive. When he wasn’t staring at nothing, he was getting all hot and bothered, the ringing phones and raised voices and beeping sensors that surrounded him agitating him and stirring him up.
He quickly maxed out his allotment.
This freaked him out so much that he had a mild panic attack, and he hid away in a toilet stall while he tried to calm down. He tried hard, but he couldn’t get his anxiety under control, and so he ended up popping a pill, a mild sedative donated by a sympathetic coworker.
When he emerged, he found himself in a strange and Zen-like place. It was almost as if his panic attack had burnt out the churning emotions contained within, and the pill was now helping to stop them from returning. His heart no longer raced and he no longer felt as if an inner pressure was slowly increasing, and he found himself unconsciously breathing deeply and slowly. He realised that he felt calm. It didn’t worry him that this was the same kind of calm felt by those who have nothing left to lose, or by those drugged insensate. Instead, he just embraced it.
Five o’clock finally happened, and the changeover alarm sounded.
Jonas stood up and slowly packed his briefcase. With his rough edges smoothed, he couldn’t have rushed if he’d tried, although the pill was starting to wear off a little. He congratulated himself on staying calm, on keeping it together, on managing to get through without another penalty, even if he had needed a little help. He checked his phone. Aside from umpteen messages of love from Sally and a video of Luther dancing, there was nothing. He felt a sense of anticipation; he couldn’t wait to get home. Not just because he couldn’t wait to see his wife and child, but also because he couldn’t wait to settle his account and top-up his allotment. Without constantly worrying about incurring another warning, tomorrow would be a better day, and taking care of it first thing would mean that he could actually relax with his family for once.
He left the office and waited with his coworkers for an elevator.
Some of them made small talk and some of them just stood there. Jonas ignored the small talk and ignored his coworkers. He pulled out his phone and watched a video of a kitten playing with a puppy while he waited.
“About time,” he muttered to himself as the elevator finally stopped at his floor.
The doors yawned opened, and people politely pushed their way out as others politely pushed their way in. Jonas hung at the back and waited some more. He felt his Zen-calm recede a little further as he was jostled and shoved. The pill had really begun to wear off.
He boarded the elevator and tried not to think of cattle or sardines.
It took a long time to reach the ground floor. Jonas hung back and let everyone else leave first. Beyond the elevator doors was a dense throng of people that filled the lobby – the second-shift had started to arrive, and they were heading in as the first-shift were heading out. There was no order to the movement; no queues or lines separated those who were exiting from those entering. Jonas tensed as he looked at the multi-limbed, many-headed beast. He swore under his breath and clenched his fists, almost unconsciously, barely even realising that he was doing so. His heart began to beat harder.
Beep-beep-beep went the sensor.
“Jonas Cho. One credit has been deducted from your allotment. You are in excess, and are required to top-up your allotment immediately. Failure to do so before incurring another penalty will result in the notification of the police,” the flat synthetic voice said.
Jonas tensed further and opened his mouth to swear again, and then suddenly thought better of it. It would look pretty stupid if he blew his last chance in exactly the same spot as he blew his second last. He wished that he had another pill, and then took a series of slow and deep breaths.
This seemed to work; neither the sensor nor the flat synthetic voice sounded a second time.
Jonas smiled to himself, and then got to it. He fixed on someone just ahead of him who was also leaving the building, and trailed in their wake – they cleaved a nice path through the crowd and all Jonas had to do was keep up. He whistled while he walked, feeling a little better about everything, and soon found himself at a set of automatic doors leading outside. He waved his right hand in front of a scanner next to them. The scanner’s artificial eye blinked slowly and then glowed an unbroken green; a chime sounded and the doors opened. Jonas stepped outside, and the doors shut behind him with a sudden show of force.
It wasn’t until he’d melted into the crowd filling the footpath that he remembered driving to work and parking in the cavernous maze beneath the building.
Jonas groaned aloud, his stress-induced forgetfulness annoying him, his frustration with life in general made plain. He turned on the spot, aiming to head back inside, and walked into someone. This stranger – a beefcake gym bunny, more cinder-block than man – brushed Jonas aside, knocking the briefcase from his hand.
It crashed to the ground. Its latches popped again.
Jonas crouched down as papers and documents fell out only to be snatched away by the wind. He reached for them, trying to wrestle with nature itself, but almost immediately realised the futility of his actions and gave up. He turned and started gathering up the other odds and ends strewn across the footpath – pens, a pair of sunglasses, a diary, a set of keys.
The whole time, he tried to think calm thoughts. He tried to think of that prayer his doctor had taught him, the one about accepting rather than fighting the things we cannot change.
To passers-by, he looked like someone curled up in a foetal ball on the footpath.
Jonas finally got to his feet and started walked. He once more found himself at a set of automatic doors leading into the building. He once again waved his right hand in front of a scanner next to them. The scanner’s artificial eye blinked slowly and then glowed red. The doors stayed shut. Jonas stopped and took a deep breath before trying again. Still, nothing happened. Jonas tried a third time. Nothing.
He knocked hard upon the doors. No response. He knocked again, and again and again.
A violent alarm started wailing and a plasti-steel shutter started descending in front of him, moving so fast that he had to take a quick step back. He looked around nervously as the alarm slowly died away and the shutter slowly retracted, and tried to spot the CCTV-camera that would have let security know that everything was okay.
The doors suddenly opened and a guard in a black uniform strode outside.
“Sir, please step away from the building,” the guard said.
Jonas dropped his briefcase and held his hands up in front of him.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I’m not trying to cause any trouble, I just want to get my car.”
The guard looked Jonas up and down. He took a scanner from a pouch on his belt and smiled.
“Hold out your right hand,” he said.
Jonas did as he’d been told and the guard waved the box over his palm. An electronic trill brightened the air for a second, and the guard consulted the scanner’s screen. His expression sharpened. He scrolled through something, and then smiled at Jonas.
“You’re clean, Mr. Cho, despite being in excess of your allotment. You can relax.”
Jonas dropped his hands and picked up his briefcase.
“Okay then, state your business,” the guard said.
“I’m part of first-shift. I had a rough day, with the sensors being installed and all that, somehow I forgot that I drove in.”
Jonas smiled, both embarrassed and amused by his behaviour. The guard just frowned at him.
“Once you’ve swiped out, you’re not technically allowed back in until your next shift,” he said.
“But can’t you just buzz me through this once? Please – it’s been a horrible day, I just want to get home.”
“Maxed out today, did you?”
The guard looked away, at the crowd streaming past the building. He frowned, and then shook his head as if making up his mind.
“Look, I’ll be really quick,” Jonas said. “The changeover has to be ending soon, and I don’t want to get caught out.”
The guard didn’t look at him.
The guard finally looked back. He met Jonas’ eye and his frown etched itself deeper into his face. And then he winked.
“No worries, I’m just messing with you.”
He stood to one side and the doors opened.
“But you’d better hurry.”
Jonas made it to the elevator without incident. It seemed to take a long time for one to arrive, even though it really only took a minute or so – Jonas was so keyed-up that once again the rest of the world felt like it was moving in slow motion. His heart beat fast and hard. He watched a digital panel on the wall slowly count down, and he crossed his arms over his chest and resisted the urge to tell it to hurry up. By the time it arrived, a crowd of second-shift workers had gathered. Hemmed in, Jonas still somehow managed to keep it together. Once aboard, he had no choice but to ride the elevator all to the way to the top floor with them. He breathed a sigh of relief as it finally began descending; he was cutting it fine, and he hadn’t started looking for his car.
To his surprise, he found it with little effort.
He waved his right hand over the lock. It beeped twice and the door slid open. He threw his briefcase on the passenger seat and clambered in. He buckled up and placed his thumb on the ignition pad. He pressed a button below the pad, selecting ‘manual’ rather than ‘automatic.’ An alarm sounded and a synthetic voice came over the car’s speaker system:
“Jonas Cho, you now have one minute to vacate the building. Failure to comply will result in an automatic disabling of this vehicle.”
Realising just how fine he’d cut in, Jonas backed out in a hurry. He turned too sharply and scraped his car along the concrete barrier. He almost lost it at the cascading clusterfuck that his day had become, but in the end, he resisted the urge to punch the steering wheel, and he swallowed his wordless scream. He headed for the exit and made it outside with bare seconds to spare.
The whole time, he clutched the steering wheel hard, his knuckles white.
He drove on, taking the tunnel out of the city. Traffic was reasonably light, and so he began to calm down a little. After a while, he took his usual exit and ended up on a quiet inner suburban street. He took a right and a left and then another right, working through what he considered his own personal rat-run and ending up on a main thoroughfare.
He cruised along and soon began to whistle tunelessly.
His whistle died away mid-note as he crested a steep hill and was forced to stop at a sudden snarl of peak-hour traffic. He waited, engine idling. In the space of two minutes, he moved forward a single car-space. Without even really thinking about, almost moving automatically, he hit the horn. But nothing happened.
“Jonas Cho, no threat to this vehicle has been detected,” a synthetic voice said over the car’s speaker system. “Consequently, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. You are in excess, and are required to top-up your allotment immediately. As this is your second warning, you are required to pull over as soon as possible and wait for the police to arrive.”
Jonas coughed up the wordless scream that he’d swallowed, and he finally punched the steering wheel. He punched it again and again and again. He lay into it, showing the inert piece of plastic no mercy. He let it all out: all his anger and frustration, his pent-up rage and his bitterness and disappointment. He found a physical release for it, a release that hurt no-one. He enjoyed it. He enjoyed finally giving in.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” he cried.
“Jonas Cho. Seven credits have been deducted from your allotment. You are now…”
The synthetic voice stopped mid-word, because Jonas pulled a pen from his pocket and jammed into the unseeing eye of the dashboard sensor. A smell of burning plastic and a cloud of acrid smoke briefly filled the air.
“Manual drive disengaged,” the synthetic voice said over the car’s speaker system.
The car suddenly began reversing out of the snarl of traffic. Jonas jerked on the wheel but nothing happened. He stamped on the brake but nothing happened. He gave up, and closed his eyes and folded his hands behind his head. His fate was out of his hands, and he just metaphorically stood aside as the car changed lanes and then slowed.
It changed lanes again, and came to a rest on the side of the road. The doors locked themselves with an audible ‘thunk.’
“Please remain calm,” the synthetic voice said over the speaker system. “The police will be with you shortly.”
(Originally published in Red Planet Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 1, October 2019)