The Button by Jamie Wahls




Jamie Wahls

B-113 had begun to sweat, and his knuckles were clenched white against the metal table. He had done everything right, but they still hadn’t pressed the Button. It was probably Joey.

B-113 hated Joey.

The voice in his head gave him commands, sure as schizophrenia. “Pick up the blue block. Place it into the square slot.”

113, with trembling hands, grabbed the block as quickly as he could, and dropped– threw it into the slot. But still that bastard wouldn’t push the Button. The mirror glass on the side of the room reflected him thin and pale. The wires running down the back of his shaved head were vibrating as he shook. He hadn’t been fed this morning.

He wanted to run over to the mirror glass and scream and break through it and scream and scream and smash whatever it took and take the Button and push it until he tore a hole in his finger again. But he knew that if he Displayed Aggression then he would not get the Button for several days. Thinking about that made him want to throw up.

He had thrown up last time.

“Pick up the knife, 113, and stab it into your left thigh.”

He seized the knife and raised it high to drive it into-

He remembered pain.

He could feel the muscles in his jaw clenching. His knife arm raised– tensed– held itself back, tensed again-

He plunged the knife into his thigh, and screamed, high and hoarse; his voice was thick, he hadn’t spoken in several weeks. They didn’t like it when he spoke. It was Humanizing The Subject. It was Four Hours No Button. He had not spoken since he heard that rule.

Blood welled up around the knife and dribbled onto the clean white tile. There was also pain. 113 looked up towards the mirror, expectant.

And that bastard Joey still didn’t push the Button.

113 snarled then, hands forming into fists, teeth clenched. And then his eyes flicked down, Showing Submission. He considered stabbing himself again, in case that would help. He seized the knife and-

“No.” Came the voice, soft now. “Leave it alone. I want you to tell me something about yourself. Something very incriminating. You choose.”

113 hesitated, opened his mouth, looked pleadingly at his reflection.

“Oh, right.” A gentle chuckle. “You have permission to talk.”

113 licked his lips, thinking hard. He hadn’t thought about himself for a while now. But.

“I, I was, cheating on my wife, before, you see I, had a mistress, a woman named Tracey, she,” his voice cracked. “She was young, and pretty, and different, and my, my wife, she had been sick for, such a long time. And I never told her about Tracey, because I didn’t want to hurt her, because she was hurting enough. I thought I would tell her when she got out of the hospital, but I never did. I never did.”

He was hit with the Button.

It was orgasm, and more than that, it was happiness, and love, and success, and food. It was food. His body cried out in triumph, a happy wave rolling through his every cell, and his knees gave out, and he shuddered on the floor, shaking, joyous, celebrated, a hero.

No. He was a god.

Then it went. He lay curled, fetal, on the floor. He had ejaculated into his jumpsuit. His muscles had the happily languid feeling that sometimes came after exercise as he panted, shuddering in the wake of the Button.

On unsteady legs, he rose. There was soft, affectionate laughter, and then. “I think we’re through for the day, 113. Well done. Return to your room.”

113 nodded immediately. At night they were sometimes given Button time, on some unpredictable schedule that he didn’t know.

“Oh, and 113?”

113 stiffened to attention, at the doorway out.

“Take the knife out.”

“I’d say that went well, huh?” Joey pulled off his headset with practiced ease.

Monica watched over steepled fingers as Joey turned off the work light and switched the overhead on. “You’re still too human with them.”

Joey’s smile faltered. “Pardon?”

She exhaled through pursed lips. “If you treat them as more than robots, or act like something other than a robot yourself, it diminishes the efficacy of the reinforcement. They’re meant to, functionally, learn that the voice they’re hearing is the universe commanding them to carry out unquestionable, infallible orders. Not that they’re being told the whims of a human, who can be manipulated, and who could be wrong.”

“Uh, ma’am, I think he seemed pretty obedient.”

She smiled thinly. “He has an electrode attached to his nucleus accumbens, and everyone gets addicted on day one. Which reminds me, keep better watch on the new ones we got today, the 140 series. Don’t let them wear out their hands.”

Joey nodded.

113 sat in his room, watching the light that indicated if his button was on. Like everyone else he had tried pushing the button anyway, and still did, but it only frustrated him.

He could hear 112 and 111 whispering to one another, which was very unusual. They were risking Punishment.

“Listen to 110,” whispered 111, her voice low and bitterly jealous. “He’s still moaning. I think his Button has been on all day.”

“I heard that there’s a final test,” said 112. “I heard it from a guy on the walking track, one of the nineties, he said that the last test is they give you a gun and you kill someone, and then you get The Button, all day long. Like we had day one.”

“I heard,” 111, “that they make two of us fight to the death. And the winner gets Button.”

There was silence.

“Nothing personal.” said 112.

“I know.”

They fell silent again, as a guard walked slowly by, sliding trays of unimportant food under each door. They ate swiftly, because they knew that Self Neglect was One Hour No Button.

Later, after too little Button and a lot of hollow time, guards came to each of their rooms.

He wore a metal facemask, like all the guards, but 113 had gotten good at telling them apart. From the slight way that he leaned back on his left foot, 113 was feeling pretty sure that this was Joey, or maybe Dylan, as a long second.

“Is this Skinner block, room 3?” asked Joey, or maybe Dylan, and 113 nodded.

“Then come with me.” And 113 could not have disobeyed.

113 entered the testing chamber. Seated in a chair at one end of it was 112, trembling slightly in joy. There was a table in the center of the room. There was a gun on the table. Along the wall was a long mirror.

“Pick up the gun,” came the voice, a new one, female and dispassionate. 113 picked up the gun, and received a fraction of a second of The Button that made him shiver.

“Point the gun at 112.” He did, and shuddered as the light caress of The Button graced him.

“Fire the gun.”

He sighted it, checked if the safety was on (it was not), gripped the trigger, and hesitated.

“The experiment requires that you continue.” The voice was flat.

He held the gun out at arm’s length, trembling. He could see 112, her eyes closed, peaceful in the embrace of the pleasure he was so close to. She twitched spasmodically, her mouth opening and closing in tiny gasps.

She would shoot you, came his usually quiet inner voice.

“It is absolutely essential that you continue,” said the voice, and 113 could hear the sudden cough of a quiet laugh from the booth.

You know she would shoot you. She was explaining to 111 that she would shoot him hours ago. And look, she’s happy. She’ll never even know she got hit. Just a squeeze, and then lights out, and then The Button for us.

Without conscious choice, 113 resolved to pull the trigger, and as he adjusted his stance slightly, the unbandaged wound on his thigh stabbed at him, and he made a different decision.

“You have no other choice, you must go on.” There was definitely a slight sniggering too, of multiple other people in the booth laughing.

113 turned towards the mirror-glass, gun out. “I am not your slave.” He heard a small gasp.

He fired, twice, and the gun was out of bullets. The glass was cracked and the mirror-image spiderwebbed and distorted, he could see 112’s face in it, shocked despite her happy fog. He saw his own face, too, twisted into a rictus of fury, saw the wires that extruded from his skull, reached for them-

The sudden surge of pure bubbly joy hit him like the clown-hammer of god. It was so ridiculous and incongruent with his anger that the anger shattered in a second and he fell to his knees. And then to the floor, looking up dimly at the mirror and 112. He could see a faint silhouette looking down at him through the glass.

“Yes, you are.” said a new voice.

“Why did you reinforce that?” asked Monica, turning from the glass.

Dylan paused, staring through the broken glass at the twitching figure on the floor. His mouth worked silently for a moment. “Just to turn him off.” He shifted slightly. His hands were trembling. “Um, even considering who Frank Sedgewick is-”

“B-113!” Monica interjected sharply.

“Even considering that… I guess this did feel like we were going too far.”

Joey glanced at Monica, then indulgently set his face in a pose of awkward, confused apology. It was the face he’d used on his girlfriend when pretending he had misunderstood what she meant by “exclusive”. His tone was sympathetic as he reached out to put a hand on Dylan’s arm. “You know we couldn’t have predicted he’d react this way, Dylan. We weren’t trying to hurt him.”

“I’d say,” said Monica, “that making him stab himself was trying to hurt him.”

Joey rounded on her, indignant as a courtroom lawyer. “I was testing the level of control! And now we know that we’re above self-preservation in his reward hierarchy. It was important to determine that he prioritized correctly.” He nodded, satisfied. “We just need to go further.”

Dylan hesitated. “This is… I think we….”

Monica waited.

Dylan looked down, and spoke in a rough whisper, words coming out ragged. “He thinks we’re the bad guys.” To which Monica laughed, cold as charity.

“I never, I never thought-”

Her voice was flat. “You never thought of him as a person, much less a person who could be hurt. You saw subjects on one side of the glass and you called them subjects, not people, so as long as they could stay on one side of the glass—either the mirror or your faceguard—you gave them as much thought as you would give the janitor. Who, by the way, you probably know as 21.

“You’re still guilty, of course. You walked them to their cells and turned on their implants. You sat by silently at many experiments. It was only when he fired the gun at you that you paused to consider if what we’re doing—we, including you—might have some repercussions. Rather a self-serving time for a crisis of faith, isn’t it?

“I—and the other directors of the project—have considered what we’re doing, and what it means. And very evil things can be very useful—like the atom bomb, for example, or a sociopath like Joey.”

Joey blinked once, and then turned to her, his face outraged-

She continued. “B-113 hasn’t even had the worst time of it. Our excellent technology was applied to B-19 to change his sexual orientation, with…complex results. Or to B-10, who, your conscience will be relieved to know, was a chimpanzee. Poor B-10 had it very, very rough indeed.

“But we’re making excellent progress now, and we won’t need to that again. The higher-ups are impressed with our work, partially thanks to young Joey here…” she tousled Joey’s hair and he flinched in surprise. “…And at this point, I don’t really care what you’re thinking. One of your happy zombie slaves has raised his head and reminded you that what you’re doing is an annihilation of free will and you have feeeeeelings. And you feel saaaaaad. We’ve all been there.”

She idly traced a fingertip along the long cracks in the glass. Behind it, subject B-113 lay on the floor, twitching slightly. “But shut up, Dylan. We have more souls to destroy. This is, at least, a happy form of slavery. And an irreversible one. I imagine that if cotton plantations before the war had had access to crack cocaine, our country would look very different now. But this gets results. After they’re weaned slightly, the mind remains intact, just with a total redirection of loyalty. This makes it the most effective tool for… well, I guess we have to call it mind control— that’s ever existed. And the entire process can be done in a month. Do you know how long our friend Frank has been here? Twenty-two days. They’re hopelessly addicted after the first day, when we just let them press themselves ad libitum. And on the one in a hundred that realizes AND can stop themselves, we press for them for an hour. That’s all it takes.

“So in about five days, we’ll tidy up the cords coming from Frank’s head, install a remote for the button and a few discreet monitoring devices, and voila, we’ll have a wirehead on the go. None of this technology is even that unthinkable. We’ve had deep brain stimulation since the 50’s. And if anyone else’s been using it, they’re keeping it quiet.”

She smiled easily at her cracked reflection, and her jagged, broken self smiled back.

“But now it’s time for us to make a better world. So really, Dylan, there’s only one question that you need to be asking yourself right now. Are you leaving here as one of us, or as one of them?”

One week later, a modest press conference was held, to welcome Senator Frank Sedgewick back from his vacation. He was accompanied by his aide, Tracey, and seemed to be in good spirits. Higher than usual, in fact; vacation seemed to have agreed with him. The Senator told the media that he was excited to get back to work, and that he had a lot of fresh ideas.

The resulting article smugly noticed that he was wearing an obvious toupee.

Food for Thought

This has probably happened.

In the 50’s, Dr. Robert Heath performed a series of experiments in early brain stimulation. Among the more problematic trials he attempted was to implant a stimulating electrode in the reward centers of a homosexual male. Heath then hired a prostitute and stimulated the subject (whom he called B-19) until the subject was well-rewarded for heterosexual sex. Heath declared the subject cured of gay. Then, after a few more noteworthy experimental sins and casual racist remarks, Heath went on to work for the CIA.

This is not fiction.

Given the extreme utility of coercion this mechanism offers, this narrative seems, well, plausible. Extremely plausible. This has probably happened.

About the Author

Jamie Wahls is a graduate student studying psychology and neuroscience. He was told that he was writing since before he could talk, but that story was clearly made up to encourage him. His other attempts to fill you with dread include “Maestro”, “A Breakthrough”, and “Why It’s Morally Defensible To Eat A Baby”.

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1 Comment

  1. Wireheading is such a good source of horror!
    I enjoyed the first half of the story a lot, right up to the line “yes you are”. I think that would have made an effective ending line. Up to that point, the whole story was in the moment with little background details building up a truly disturbing environment. After that, though, the viewpoint shifted to some less involved characters and the rest of the story was telling, not showing.

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