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The Collective

What if we were all one?

By Alexandra HubbellPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
The Collective
Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Step right foot. Step left foot. Swipe my Level 2 badge. Enter turnstile, right hip first. Walk forward. File into line, always behind Number 33, some guy with white-blonde hair. He wears it slicked back like the others, but a small cowlick always spirals up in the back. We walk toward the screening chamber in perfect unison, our perfectly trim bodies in perfectly white, crisp uniforms. Each of us goes through the chamber one at a time. When it’s my turn, I try to keep my heart rate from rising. I try to do the right thing, the same thing, as all the others. They are watching.

I enter left foot first into the dim room. I follow the instructions over the intercom. Arms out. Gaze forward. A red light scans my body. All clear. If I’ve made a wrong move, they didn’t detect it. I hold in a sigh of relief. Regulate my breathing. Neutral face. Exit the screening room. Pick up my gear from locker number 34.

I walk to my pod. Everyone is already in gloves, standing behind their microscopes. Five rows of people moving in unison. Dropper goes into the beaker, 3 drops onto the slide, inspect, remove slide, enter data into system, start again. We don’t know what we’re testing. We’d never think to ask. At least, the others wouldn’t. Level 2 of the Collective moves and thinks as one. No one questions anything. I never do out loud.

I walk to my supervisor’s desk. She has a Level 3 chip. Level 3 has research privileges. They’re able to process the information that we deliver from the slides.

“Hello,” she says as she checks me in.

“Hello,” I say back.

“How are you?”

“I’m well,” I say.

I’m not well. I’m bored. I’m restless. I’m depressed, anxious. But those aren't Level 2 dialogue options. I’m lucky I’m not a Level 1. At least I work in an air-conditioned room. At least I can speak at all, even if my responses are limited. I can use of the two program-approved responses to “How are you?”: “Well” or “Unwell”. If I respond “unwell”, I go for testing in the infirmary. It’s better to say “well” than get caught. Those who get caught don’t come back.

She nods, and I walk—not too fast, not too slow—to my row. I put my hand on the sensor embedded in the stainless-steel countertop. The day’s activity should upload to my chip as part of the Lab Program. I should begin automatically working in unison with the others. As always, it doesn’t work. I watch the others out of my peripheral vision, and follow their exact motions. Number 33 is next to me, as always, and I angle my dropper exactly like his, dripping at the same time. If I have an itch, I don’t scratch it. If I need to cough, I swallow it. 3 hours until lunch. 3 more hours after that until home. My muscles ache from the repetition.

Dropper goes into beaker, 3 drops onto the slide, inspect, remove slide, enter data into system, start again. Dropper goes into beaker, 3 drops onto the slide, inspect, remove slide, enter data into system, start again. Dropper goes into beaker, 3 drops onto the slide, inspect, remove slide, enter data into system--but then, a loud buzzer sounds.

I flinch, only for a moment, and silently pray that the supervisor didn’t see my reaction. I want to cover my ears, but instead, I follow my peers. Arms straight by my sides, back away from the table. I use the wrong foot to step back. My heart pounds as the supervisor steps to my microscope. She doesn’t show surprise or concern--emotion isn’t a feature of Level 3. She enters the data into her system, and I can just barely read it out of the corner of my eye. “Anomaly found. New mutation detected. Chip failure possible.”

Chip failure. That’s the project. They’re trying to detect chip failure rates through DNA. A cool layer of sweat forms above my lip. I want to make sure my hair is perfectly tucked under my cap, that my gloves are tight around my wrists, but I can’t move. I need to be still like the others. The supervisor shuts off the alarm, types something into her system, and we all step back up to the tables. This time, I use the right foot.

I go about the rest of the day, perfectly matching each Program’s activity. Lunch goes without a single slip-up. I don’t make a face at the globs of cottage cheese sticking to the roof of my mouth. There isn’t another alarm for the rest of the day. I’ve never had an anomaly before. Others have. We get one about once a week. Never close enough for me to read the data though. Chip failure possible. Is that what most of the anomalies say? Or just mine? Are there more like me out there? If there are, I’ll never know. I’d never give myself away. The ones that did, when the Collective began, when they first did the implants and they continued to rebel, couldn’t be programmed--they were wiped out. I can never be “Unwell”. I can never give them a reason to test me in any way. I must have the anomaly DNA. What if they test my lunch spoon? The straw from my drink?

When shift ends, I leave with my pod, filing out the way we filed in. I scan my hand for the Dismissal Program, and everyone moves a bit more freely, entering the lobby from their pods in different directions, the Mergers with their welding helmets, the Healers sweaty from their hazmat suits. The other Chems follow close behind me as we go to our lockers to drop off our goggles and gloves. They exchange the Program’s “goodbye” dialogue. I open my locker and hang my goggles from the hook. Something catches my eye. A shape is carved into the metal just behind the hook. A heart with the letters GHW in the center.

My body goes numb. I close the locker too loudly, but no one seems to notice. I wonder if I imagined it, but when I open the door again, it’s there. I leave as fast as I can without calling attention to myself. I’m more aware in the screening chamber, wondering if the red light can detect my energy. If the microscope caught an anomaly, can the screening room?

I take the train home with the others, moving with the Level 2 Collective, following them mindlessly through the Transportation Program, lost in my own thoughts. My own thoughts. What if they know about them? What if they try to shut me down, or experiment on me? What if the guards are at my apartment? They aren’t. The hallway is empty as usual. Once you’re inside, you’re locked in for the night. No one in, no one out.

When I’m home, I finally have some freedom. When Level 2s enter our apartments, we scan into Personal Mode. As long as I don’t move erratically, I have some level of privacy so I can undress, shower, use the restroom. At least, that’s what they told us when we consented to being chipped. Our only other option was to be sent to the Hazard Zone to clean up waste—a death sentence. Most of us consented.

They only intrude on Personal Mode if an emergency action happens. If I fall or cut myself, seem like I’m having a heart attack or something, they may do a wellness check. The screen on the wall will activate, and a guard will ask a series of questions. You’ll be on watch the rest of the night. In Personal Mode, most people watch an approved form of Entertainment, do a craft, make dinner. There isn’t a set Program, but everyone lives alone, and no one has full access to thoughts or emotion—at least no one aside from me that I know of.

So, I move slowly through my apartment, and try to stay off the radar. The heart. I pull a small bag from my memento box. We were allowed to bring a single, shoebox-sized container of personal items from when we were the Republic, before the Collective took over the government. I take my grandmother’s locket from the bag, her initials swirling elegantly into the gold: GWH. I notice a slip of paper sticking out between the halves of the heart. I open it with shaking fingers, take a breath to steady myself. I unfurl the paper. Written in blocky letters, it says Find 2D.

I stay up the entire night, turning over 2D in my mind. Someone has been in my home. Someone knows that I would be able to process this. Someone knows I can think for myself, that the chip failed. Someone else out there can think for themselves, just like me.

I leave for work the next day, unrested. I get on the same train with the same people. I follow the other Level 2s in their white suits through the tunnel, watching their feet and moving in unison, all flowing to the same exit toward Collective Lab Corps. Just before I reach the stairs, I notice something painted on the concreate, almost too worn to be legible: 3D.

I temper my reaction and search the corners of my eyes for another clue. Above us hangs a droopy sign, leftover from the Republic. This had been the subway station, taking us to work, out to bars, to dance at concerts. Buskers would play and protesters would stand with signs. Everyone would move haphazardly where they needed to go. Since the Collective, I’d always followed the herd straight to the Lab, never needing to look at the faded words and maps. My heart rises to my throat. The sign reads “1D, 2D, 3D", with arrows pointing three directions. The white suits all go to 1D. The Level 1 grey suits go through 3D. 2D is completely dark, save for a single flickering fluorescent light still active on the wall. I step as slightly as I can to the right, and continue forward, moving on a diagonal toward 2D. I collide with another white suit, and the man looks like he’s glitching. He stares at me, blankly, but the arm I hit spasms. I gently turn him back into the flow of people, and he continues to 1D.

I duck as low as I can beneath the herd, then crawl along the side of the wall, moving quickly before the crowd begins to thin. The guards are walking along the edges of the train rails, and I have just seconds before they’ll be able to spot me.

I make it to 2D, and when I hit the dark corridor, I strip off my bright white jumpsuit, leaving only the standard-issue beige undershirt and pants. I make my way down the tunnel, keeping a hand over my mouth to keep from squealing at the rats and stinking puddles squelching under my boots. I finally reach the end, another weak fluorescent light buzzing blue-white over a chained door. A dead end. I want to scream. I search frantically over my shoulders for guards, hoping this isn’t a trap. Then, I notice a flash of bright pink. A spray-painted heart and GHW, just like my locket, painted on a sewer cover. I lift it and descend the ladder.

People are bustling in all directions. Metal shelves line the walls, filled with books that should have been burned years ago. Men and women read by candlelight, talk animatedly around gas lanterns. Notes are stuck to the walls. A man with white-blonde hair is bent over a paper map, and when I jump from the ladder he turns toward me. 33.

“You made it, Number 34,” he says, smiling. “Welcome to the Uncollected.”

Sci Fi

About the Creator

Alexandra Hubbell

To see more art:

Insta @alexandrahubbellart

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