FICTION June 17, 2011



They made me watch the procedure. The eye core looked like something you might use to drive nails into a wall, a vibrating, battered machine with a pistol grip and hoses running to a portable tank/battery pack. Our Corrective Referee and his assistants held Andy to the chair and placed the eye piece over Andy's face. It didn't take longer than 30 seconds. Once Andy's eyes were removed, they inserted two white ceramic plug-like objects, from the bases of which trailed two cables. Our Corrective Referee plugged these cables into two ports beneath one of Andy's monitors.

How's it looking? our Corrective Referee said, Is the signal coming through?

Andy nodded.

All good then, our Corrective Referee said as the assistants wiped up some blood with pre-moistened absorbent wipes.

When they left, I leaned over and whispered, Andy? Are you okay?

Andy nodded.

Andy, I'm so sorry, I said, and started to cry. I took hold of his closest hand. It felt cold and drained of blood, probably from the medications they inserted during the procedure.

Can you see anything? I said.

Yes, Andy said, I can see what's on the monitors. It's like looking down a tunnel at the image. The resolution is better.

In my peripheral vision I spotted a violation and quickly submitted the appropriate alert. Andy groped for his keyboard to log some violations of his own. They were coming in waves-- subjects falling asleep, defacing their monitors, breaking furniture. Thanks to my quick work, the misbehaving subjects were instantly visited by their Corrective Referees, who delivered the variety of punishments they deserved. By the end of my shift I started hoping something I could barely admit to myself, that the subjects would violate their Performance Parameters. I considered the possibility of the subjects wising up and behaving within their Performance Parameters, and the prospect oddly disappointed me. The broken fingers and black eyes that resulted from their disobedience was my reward for a job performed well.

At the end of our shift our Corrective Referee visited to unplug Andy from his monitors and escort him to his quarters. He gave us both unlimited entertainment cards. That night I watched three. One was about a kid who learns how to be cool when a more popular kid shows him how to dress. Another was a historical entertainment about Vikings. The third was a pornographic entertainment that I'm too ashamed to describe.

The next day Andy arrived before me. He was in a talkative mood.

I can plug these suckers into my ports at home and see the entertainments with crystal clarity, Andy said. Cool, yeah? The Corrective Ref says pretty soon I'll be allowed to hook these things into a video camera so I won't be restricted to just seeing whatever monitor I'm plugged in to.

Do they hurt? I said.

They're a little sore, yeah, Andy said, but that's supposed to wear off in a couple days.

I slowly became accustomed to Andy's new way of monitoring. The more content he seemed with his new apparatus, the more bored I became. My subjects entered a long streak of faithfully performing within their Parameters. I waited with itchy fingers for them to slip up, make some fatal error that brought upon them the wrath of a Corrective Referee, but for the most part their transgressions were minor. I daydreamt about a subject smashing a monitor with a chair or getting up and walking out an hour before his shift ended. Then I considered an awful thought, some dark and buoyant fantasy that kept bobbing to the surface regardless of how I tried to push it down. I wanted to submit an alert on someone who was completely innocent, who had not deviated from their Performance Parameters. With Andy locked into his own personal monitor view, I knew I could probably get away with it. Nobody would see me, not even the hidden others who observed me from miniscule cameras hidden somewhere in the acoustic tile overhead. Whoever was watching me would not be able to discern whether my subjects had in fact deviated from their performance parameters. There was a half hour left on my shift. I could simply shelve the idea, go home, eat pizza, and watch some entertainments. Instead I chose my subject randomly and submitted an alert for vandalism.

A couple minutes passed and I stared at the back of my subject's head. Before him a screen of fuzzed out, inhuman pixels behaved. The Corrective Referee entered and I considered submitting an alert correction, but knew that alert corrections reflected poorly on one's own performance. The Corrective Referee selected an instrument from his belt and went to work. I could not bear to watch. I had to watch. When the occasion of correction passed, my subject crawled back to his chair and pushed it toward the camera, then climbed onto it so that his face took up nearly the entire monitor. How he knew where to find the camera I had no idea, but his knowing where it was located seemed to me an admission of his guilt. Then he opened his mouth to show me the bleeding pits where his bottom teeth had been.

At home I vomited for an hour then sat down in my favorite chair to watch an entertainment about a beloved teacher whose unorthodox teaching methods simply aren't understood by the school administration.

The following day I numbly went about my work. I considered submitting a vacation request. My mind wandered to entertainments I had seen, peoples' faces I had passed in the hallway. Andy hummed and tapped the wrist protector of his keyboard with a pencil in time to a song. Then right before noon all the monitors went blank. Hardware failure. I banged on my monitor with the ball of my hand, but all they displayed was static.

What's going on? Andy said.

Dang monitors blew, I said.

I can see mine just fine, Andy said, What are you seeing?

Nothing, I said.

Must be a connection between the servers to the monitors, Andy said. Hey, it looks like my subjects are having the same problem. I guess this is system-wide.

Can you pull up a Performance Parameter menu? I said.

Yeah, Andy said, hold on a second. I've never had to access this one before. Okay, here. It says that... This can't be correct. “In case of monitor failure please continue following performance parameters and submit alerts on all violations.”

But we can't even see our subjects! I said.

It's happening to everyone, Andy said. Oh, Jesus.

I started toward the door. The Corrective Referee and his two assistants met me. On the Corrective Referee’s face was an expression of deep, compassionate sadness as he sighed and asked for his tools.

Ryan Boudinot is the author of BLUEPRINTS OF THE AFTERLIFE (Grove/Atlantic, 2012); MISCONCEPTION (Grove/Atlantic, 2009), a finalist for the PEN-USA literary award; and THE LITTLEST HITLER (Counterpoint, 2006). He teaches at Goddard College and Richard Hugo House.