Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - The Channels by Naben Ruthnum
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A young girl in an enclosed city decides to lie down naked in a street in this sci-fi story from author Naben Ruthnum.

The Channels

Tara's mother didn't allow her to watch the Channels at home. "I just can't be sure of what's going to happen," Janine Collier would say, falsely assuring her daughter that they would revisit the issue when Tara turned eighteen. Never being sure of what was going to happen seemed to be the appeal of the Channels, little Tara thought. By the time she was eighteen, she was sure that the only interesting condition was unsureness. In life, however, she always knew exactly what was coming next. Only the Channels could surprise. 

If Tara wanted to do anything fun, she had to leave home. That was one thing her mother didn't worry about; the domed, sanitary city had been policed into social stasis. Murders would throw off the birth / death ratio as surely as unauthorized births, and the Network prided itself on keeping this statistic constant, year after year. On a rare afternoon when there were no police officers in sight, Tara's best friend Sarina dared her to strip and lie down in the middle of an intersection. Only Sarina, watching from a hiding place behind a cluster of artificial maples, saw Tara take off her clothes. The men who walked by just afterward pretended to look at the digital clock on a building behind Tara's naked form in order to have a brief stare, but they made no attempt to have any contact with her. Tara kept her eyes closed, but she could feel them looking. As the volume of footfalls increased and the pavements around her filled, she hoped that Sarina's father, Vaughan, was among the crowd of workers returning from the Network. She enjoyed making Vaughan uncomfortable when she visited Sarina, touching his arm as frequently as possible, staring at him during meals. She imagined his hands pulling her up from the ground in a grip that tried to scold but squeezed too gently. Tara had almost dozed off when she felt a fleece blanket being wrapped around her. She was dropped into a police cruiser by a female officer who wore mirrored sunglasses against the dulled dusk-light filtering through the dome. 

"Fainted," the cop told Janine, offering no explanation for the missing clothing. Janine assumed a hospital had cut them off her daughter, and berated the medical system for doing so little to help a teenager in need. The officer listened impassively. Her stillness would have convinced Tara that the force had started switching to android officers, but that technology didn't exist, and humans still needed those jobs. If only to give them something to do. Behind those impenetrable lenses, that policewoman was bored, bored to sickness. But at the end of her shift, she could sling her uniform over a chair and immerse herself in the Channels. Tara couldn't. 

When the cop left, Tara put clothes on and made up a lie for her mother. "Skipped breakfast. And lunch, like an idiot. And I guess I didn't have enough water. I absolutely promise to start carrying a bottle with me, like you're always saying-yeah, I know-and I'll have some cereal first thing every day. Yeah. Every day. Fainting was no fun." This was enough for Janine, who went upstairs, happy to have some of her fears about Tara's carelessness confirmed in a reassuringly harmless way. 

Tara sagged into a structureless beanbag chair in the living room, staring at the blank and parental-locked Channel screen. If she did turn it on, she could choose between an archive of recorded game shows and an age-appropriate print library with classical music accompaniment. Tara regretted the naked gambit now; if she and Sarina had continued their walk, they could be watching something at Sar's house right now. Sarina's parents tried hard to be cool, and didn't have to try to be sympathetic; the whole city had witnessed the death of Tara's dad when his daughter was just a baby. A Channel had been devoted to the tunneling mission that Roland Collier had headed up. Vaughan had been part of the above-ground crew on the operation, an honour that came with a snug Network job that was tantamount to a full-pension retirement. This reward came despite the immortally famous failure of the tunnel. The city thought of the day of the collapse as the day the last heroes had died; Tara thought of it as the day that ensured her mother would never allow her to watch the Channels. She kept this cold reflection to herself, but she didn't feel all that bad. She had never known Roland, her father. With some reservations, she did appreciate the adventurousness of a man who would take on a fatal mission with a child in the crib back home.

And his death-that must have been a high moment on the Channels. There were constant deaths on, of course, especially on the Medieval and Ancients stations (Ch. 275 - 412) and the seemingly endless American Civil War stations (Ch. 712-850) that people pretended to watch out of a sense of patriotism, but really followed for the virtual guarantee of blood. The moment that Roland Collier and his crew met their end, though-that was live death, a real-time, current fatality.

Roland had been sure that he could tunnel deep enough to create the workable beginnings of an underground transport network to link the few surface cities and allow travel across distances of territory for the first time in decades. Collapsed satellite communications and ceaseless electrical storms had long since brought inter-city communication to a halt. If citizens could travel physically, they would be less reliant on the vicarious time travel that the Channels provided. The Network had funded the project, proving that their commitment to the viewing public extended beyond keeping it safe and glued to the screen. Roland soon discovered that his calculations were off, to the tune of a couple of miles. There were massive quantities of tumour-nourishing radiation in the soil outside of the domes, as everyone knew. Roland had estimated the radiation was negligible at a certain distance underground, but he was wrong. The poison penetrated. Vaughan had once got drunk and described the scene to Tara.

"Your dad, steady voice and all-the Channel was aligned to his sensorium, because he was in the crew, so we could see how wrong everything was going, same time as he could-he was just rattling off radiation figures and asking for a half-minute more. Just a half-minute so the crew could try to seal the tunnel themselves, could seal it in front of them and still get out. Too late though, your dad knew that. He turned around a bunch, so we got a look at the other guys in the pod, most of them crying, some of them real quiet, some punching monitors, none of them calm as your dad. He tried a couple of things then told the Network to drop the lead." Sarina's mom came in with a tray of small cakes and realized what was being discussed. Breaking the cool parent routine for once, she threw the tray at her husband and told Tara to get out of the room. There was some screaming.

"Drop the lead." Not the worst last words. Roland was telling the Network to fill the tunnel with vats of molten metal and dense earth. A true radiation flood could turn the landscape inside the dome into the landscape outside the dome in less than ten minutes. The last sight Roland and anyone watching the Channel tuned into his sensorium saw was a hot tide of obliterating metal. That was the final attempt to travel outside the domed city, and also the last time that a Channel had been patched to a living sensorium. 

Tara rolled over on the beanbag chair and pulled her private phone out from her back pocket. It was a prepaid unit that her mother knew nothing about; little deceptions like this allowed Tara to feel as though she had a life of her own. She dialed Sarina's (also secret) phone and waited.

"Tara." The voice came after the third ring, saturated with the urgent drama that Sarina was so good at. She transformed the most pathetically everyday conflicts and bits of school gossip into scandals that could disrupt the social order for an eternity in both directions. "Tara, he saw. My dad saw you. That cop took you away before I could tell you."

"In the intersection? Naked. Vaughan saw me naked." Tara suppressed the thrill in her voice, but allowed herself to feel it in the brief silence before Sarina's hushed torrent of response. Despite his tendency to drink too much, Vaughan kept his shape and youth well, skipping enough of his wife's baking to keep his stomach flat. Tara was usually sure that his feelings toward her were paternal, but perhaps that wasn't true. She was stuck in her Channels-forbidden zone with old Janine for at least another three years, but that didn't mean her life outside the walls could change.

"Yes, like, totally, the full view. He crossed the entire road, and I mean he slowed down when he came close. I can't believe you didn't open your eyes or anything. He's been weird all night, now. Obviously he didn't see me hiding there. I can't believe he's such a creep."

"I'm glad it wasn't a dull day for everyone," Tara said.

"You're being completely disgusting," Sarina shout-whispered, making the receiver of Tara's cheap phone crackle. "Like as bad as him. Gross."

"Whatever. If he's not gonna say anything, it's fine. What's on right now? What Channel?" Tara could hear shouting and the pops of twentieth-century small arms fire.

"I dunno, Mom and the Creeper are watching in the other room. They usually do one of the twentieth c. urban ones on Thursdays. Guns guns guns."

Sarina was incapable of vivid description, and Tara hadn't seen enough of the urban channels to fill in blanks between the gunfire. Roland had been the last contemporary sensorial tap-in, but the tragedy hadn't altered the Network's continuous mining of minds from the past. In fact, after Roland's mission had proved that traveling to other cities would always be impossible, time travel by proxy was even more essential to life in the domed city.

Tara read all the material the Network offered, but nothing explained the sensorium-transplant experience effectively. The process had been tested on convicts in the waning days of old Earth, when it was clear that escape from the planet in any conventional sense was going to be impossible. The hopeless quest was an attempt to fling individual human consciousnesses across a gap of space, uploading humans into bodies on different planets. The experiment was useless without these bodies, of course, and the convicts came across no populated planets. Freed from their bodies and projected into space, the convicts had nothing to send back but extra-atmospheric wanderings, real-time dispatches from the vacuum. Not one reached far enough to discover a living planet, and time eventually ran short. The convicts could be pulled back into their bodies, but most chose to end their lives wandering around dead planets, expiring when their bodies dissolved back home. 

The domes were a solution, for some. And the Channels brought a new mode of travel to everyone: vicarious time travel, made possible by attuning a vehicle consciousness to a Network Channel and aligning that consciousness with one from the past. The time process was what the Network refused to explain. Consider it a magic trick that would become dull if it was explained, the literature seemed to suggest. Tara got sick of researching what she couldn't see, anyhow. She devoted her ingenuity to finding ways of watching as much of the Channels as she could. 

Her first experience came at the age of six. At Sarina's house, of course. The two of them had been watching Channel 33, which was tuned to the sensorium of a nineteeth-century English girl of the lower classes. Normally the girl's life unfolded in pastoral, gentle repetitions of tasks that seemed utterly foreign, most of which involved food sources that had long disappeared. On the particular day that Tara had tuned in, the girl was hauled into a filthy wagon by a tinker who pretended to be selling clever dolls constructed out of a light, artificial-looking wood. Tara and Sarina watched as the tinker proceeded to visit an awful horror that they couldn't explain on the girl. She was left by the roadside afterwards. Sarina left as Tara continued to stare through the girl's upward-looking eyes for many minutes, the vivid blue of that era's sky darkened only by an occasional slow blink. The Channel screen eventually went dark. The Network had a policy of never censoring content; what happened in the Channels happened for the viewer. Tara had thought of the girl lying in the field when she herself was lying in the middle of that intersection. What was happening on the back of that peasant girl's eyelids was more complicated than anything that had ever happened to Tara. This bothered her. Perhaps the closest comparable experience in current life was her father's last moment, staring at that molten lead rushing toward him. 

Sarina was blabbering something about school, still using her urgent voice. Tara was tired of hearing her friend pretend to be concerned about grades; the girl would walk into a Network position as soon as she graduated, thanks to her father's connections. Sarina's voice suddenly stopped, then said something muffled and distant. The connection must be fading, Tara thought, moving her finger to the off button.

"Tara." Vaughan's voice came through, backed by silence. He must have taken the phone to a different room and closed the door. "I need to talk to you."

"I'm sorry about earlier, Vaughan. We were just--" 

"Drop the airhead voice, Tara. You can talk to me or I can just call your mom. Two choices. If you choose the first option, meet me at that intersection in two hours, and don't tell anyone that you're coming. Mom, Sarina, anyone."

Tara paused before answering. She couldn't hear alcohol in Vaughan's voice. Or threat. He sounded different, though; as though he were addressing her as an adult, instead of as his dead colleague's daughter, or as his own dumb daughter's friend. 

"Two hours from now is after midnight."

"It's not a heavy curfew-check week. They post the schedule in my department at the Network. You'll be fine, okay?"

"You're not going to take the phone away from Sarina?"

"Don't worry about that. Worry about meeting me. See you." Tara could hear Vaughan opening the door to the ambient noise of the house around him, and to the gunshots of a twentieth century moment on his television. He hung up.

The unusual excitement of Tara's police escort to the apartment had been more than enough of an excuse for her mother to take a tranquilizer or four. A quick check at Janine's bedroom doorway confirmed that guess with snores. Tara put on some jeans and passed an hour and a half with some ancient episodes of The Dating Game before beginning her walk to the intersection.

The city was quiet, except for the hum of the vast motor assembly that purified the air and processed the day's solar energy. Tara reached the intersection and stood behind the same maples that had sheltered Sarina. Vaughan turned up, dressed lightly for the cool night. He had a jacket, but it was wrapped around his right forearm, covering his hand. Tara stepped into the street.

"I saw what you did here today," Vaughan called as she walked closer. Tara made a large shushing motion with both of her hands, and he laughed at her. "There is no one. Literally no one out here."

"Ok, whatever, but I don't like yelling anyway." Tara pointed at the curb behind Vaughan; they both sat. He stank. In the time between their phone conversation and this meeting, he'd drunk a lot.

"I saw you."

"Yeah, okay. I'm sorry?"

"That's ok. I wanted to know who you did that for, though," Vaughan asked. 

"I dunno."

"Yes, you do."

"Me, then. I was bored. I'm always bored."

"Oh," Vaughan said. He stood up, and looked at Tara from above. She was uncomfortable with the position, and pushed herself back on the pavement in order to look into his eyes directly. If he wanted to touch her, he shouldn't have stood. 

"Who else would it be for?" Tara asked, trying to make the question sound lofty, not juvenile.

"I thought you might have done it for me. To get my attention," Vaughan said. Tara laughed. Vaughan didn't.

"What if I did?"

"Then my guess is that you're trying to prove that you're grown-up, in the least mature way possible. That's just my guess."

"It was for fun."

"Yeah, fun. You want to be treated like an adult, then? Is that it?"

"I dunno."

"Not saying 'I dunno' anymore is step one." Vaughan bent slightly and squeezed Tara's knee. She stood up. 

"You think I'd lie in the road naked to have some weird conversation with you? You, who I see like every day, anyway?"

"Yeah, in my house, where you stare at me and leave handprints all over me when my wife isn't looking. Maybe you wanted to see me outside my house. To have me see you outside of the house."

"You're sick," Tara said, meaning it. Vaughan's slick voice and the look in his eyes were far removed from any of her idle imaginings of this moment. 

"That's kinda what the psych evaluation said when I went up for my job. Language was a little more elegant, though," Vaughan said, smiling at her. Tara was perfectly aware that there was something wrong with his smile. She was also aware that this conversation was much more interesting than lying in the street naked had been.

"Job?"

"I help to keep the birth and death rate constant. Me and the rest of the Network cleaning squad. You want to be an adult, you should know these things. Get them in the open, like you, lying around naked, in the open. Not all secretive, the way you look at me at the house. That's why I get drunk around you, you know. Makes it easier not to get nervous. But it's still odd, with your Dad and all."

"What about him?"

"Before his little mission was going to start, Roland told the Network that he was going to blow the lid on the Channels too. Tell everyone, that way we'd get more support for the tunnel. Like it was some great idea or something, encouraging people to go to the other cities, where they barely have any law at all."

"What about the Channels? What was he going to say?"

"That they're fake, of course. All thousand of them. Computer generated. That was the only tech that was perfect by the time the domes went up: special effects. Simulation. All the stories the Network told about convicts and everything, you know, just helped to suspend disbelief. If you put enough boring parts into all those fake real lives on the Channels, people believe it. We're just sure not to make anything that's too stimulating to be reality."

Tara turned to leave, but Vaughan was on his feet with a hand across her face and an arm across her waist before she could get anywhere. His jacket fell, and a metal can bounced out. 

"Let me finish. Your dad's channel was fake too, of course. I killed him personally before he could have any unsafe discussions, or dig any unsafe tunnels. We did them all by burning, him and his crew, just to make sure everything was as close to the Channel version as possible. Everyone at the Network got to watch, just so they'd understand what would happen if classified information started roaming around."

Tara screamed against Vaughan's palm. He could feel the pressure of air, but there was no sound.

"I thought you were trying to show me how grown up you were," Vaughan said. "I intercepted the police report that cop sent in about you. About your 'anti-social behavior' this afternoon. I could have made that go away, was going to try and get you a job after we got together." He took Tara's tears against the back of his hand as an answer. "I guess not. Now I have to make you go away, instead."

Vaughan tripped Tara and fell heavily on top of her, winding her entirely. He picked up the little can and poured its stinking contents on Tara, then dragged her by her heels to a dark place behind the stand of maples. He tossed a match on her and the flames started. By the time Tara got her breath back, the parts of her that would be screaming were too burnt to be used. 

Vaughan called the rest of cleanup crew as the fire died down. While he did feel sorry for the crisped form on the sticky, melting grass, he was pleased that he'd been able to show Tara that real life was more surprising than the Channels.

About the Author

Naben Ruthnum writes various kinds of fiction and screenplays in various Canadian cities, and is currently in Vancouver, finishing a draft of a serial killer novel.