2017 winter short story: lost in a trance

2017 winter short story: lost in a trance

When his classmates became hooked on a new mobile game, one student thought nothing of it. Then it began to spread across the entire city


Illustration: Ken Cheng/SCMP

This story was written by Forrest Jiang, a 16-year-old student from Renaissance College.

This story is one of the finalists of Young Post’s 2017 Winter Short Story Competition. Each week during the holidays, we will publish one of the finalists’ stories. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on April 7.

Another mobile game

I am hiding out in a sewer, under the streets of Sheung Shui. Away from most of the action and near the Chinese border, I plan to live the rest of my days down here in the darkness. I know the end will come sooner or later, but I don’t know how. 

Will it be an infection from the bullet embedded in my elbow, thirst, hunger, or the guards that bring my eventual demise?

My scanty food supply consists of a single loaf of bread, while there was a pool of dirty water on the ground. It hasn’t rained in a while. Whether from thirst or stupidity, I decided to take a sip and substitute the dryness in my throat with the risk of sickness. If I am sure to die anyway, at least I won’t die thirsty.

I hear the clack of boots on metal above me, clanging in a near-rhythmic tune. The guards must be weeding out the last of the resistance, to squash even the most meagre shred of hope the people may have. It sounded like the heavy footsteps of the marching bands I would hear on Main Street during my annual winter trips to Disneyland. Today would have been the first day of the Christmas holidays if it wasn’t for what started five months ago. It wasn’t a nuclear war or terrorist attack that brought Armageddon. It came from within.

It was our collective stupidity and gullibility that pulled us down this path.

The beginning of the end

I remember it all started on the first day of school. It was a hot and humid summer day as usual, and – being the antisocial nerd I am – I was reading a book in the shade of a ledge outside the cafeteria.

I heard a sudden commotion as people gathered around the table where all the gamers sat. Unusual. The gamers were the most isolated social group in the school – with, perhaps, the exception of me. They were crowded around a younger kid playing a game on his phone.

As I passed through the hall on the way to class, I saw everyone on their phones playing what seemed to be the same game. I checked out the app store, and sure enough, a game was featured smack in the middle of the front page. As I clicked the button to install it, I tripped on my laces. I lost my grip on the phone as I fell face-first to the ground. It landed on the hard concrete surface with a loud crack, and broke into several pieces. At the time, I could never have known that my clumsiness would one day save my life.

As I stood up and picked up my phone, or rather, what was left of it, everyone else was oblivious to me. There were no stares, not even a glance. I naively felt relieved that I hadn’t embarrassed myself once again. It wasn’t like I had any social status, to begin with.

It was during the first lesson of the day that I first felt there was something wrong. I entered the classroom as usual, taking my spot right at the back. The class hadn’t started yet, so I took out the book I always had in my bag and started reading. 

A girl walked by and bumped into my desk, knocking the book out of my hands. I looked up, expecting an apology, but all I could see was my reflection on the back of her phone. I waved my hand in front of her eyes, only for it to be slapped away with a grunt.

I leaned forward to pick up my book. All my classmates were on their phones, captivated by the cloud of light emitting from the screens. Everyone was sitting in their own personal bubble of isolation, as if they were in some sort of stupor.

I looked up, expecting to see my chemistry teacher, only for my gaze to fall on an empty chair. A quick glance at the clock hanging on the wall told me that she was already 15 minutes late. I guess this meant that I was allowed to leave. I stuffed my book back into my rucksack and made a beeline for the door, planning to find out where my teacher was.

In a daze

As I walked through the hall in the direction of the staff room, curiosity got the better of me and I put my ear to the door of another classroom. Anticipating the voice of a teacher or the chatter of rowdy students, I was instead greeted with silence. Could have been an empty classroom. I opened the door slightly and peeked my head inside, only to see rows of students hypnotised by their phones, again without an adult in sight.

I resumed my walk towards the staff room, only now with more urgency. I could hear my heart thumping. It was obvious that something was wrong. Really wrong. This scene would have been perfect for a horror film if only the lights were flickering.

I knocked on the staff room door, and when there was no response, I kicked the door open. Inside were all the teachers sitting on chairs, entranced by their phones, just like the other students.

Not knowing what to do, I called 999 using the office phone. I nervously tapped my toes as the phone rang. Before long, there was a message claiming that there were no operators available and to wait a moment. I waited for what seemed like an eon, with classical music on repeat. The line was then abruptly cut to a humming tone.

I saw my chemistry teacher looking up at me, momentarily distracted from her phone. She didn’t acknowledge me and her eyes never met mine. Then, she and all the other teachers walked straight to the door, as if they were zombies, and fresh brains were being served in the cafeteria.

I stood by the door, and as the teachers walked out, I could see that the other students were doing the same, collectively walking to the school’s main gates. They were all in what I could only describe as a trance. Little did I know, the trance was only the first stage.  Everyone was walking in unison, flooding the street. I ran past the stream of people as they merged into a human river on the highway. They were all heading west, towards the city centre, as if directed by an internal compass.

It was then that I realised that the effect wasn’t isolated to our school. It wasn’t isolated to this street either. It was the whole of Hong Kong – perhaps it was even the rest of the world. I could not comprehend the situation, and my mind began to race. What did this mean? What should I do? Should I blend in with the crowd and feign ignorance? Or should I attempt to escape from the city and avoid the situation entirely?

Whether due to cowardice or intelligence, I chose the latter option. Filled with confusion and anxiety, I started the trek northbound, to the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border.

On the run

It was an uneventful two-day trek, with food and water abundant in the abandoned supermarkets and convenience stores. It was also a walk that made my physical ineptness apparent. When I reached the Hong Kong side of the border, none of the posts were manned. Yet upon glancing up, all I could see were tanks, troop carriers, and missile launchers stretching to the horizon, courtesy of the PLA.

I waved my arms and screamed for attention, yet was only met with gunfire in return. I ran away from the border, as fast as my legs could carry me. Then – a spike of pain in my left elbow. I felt nauseous and would have blacked out if it wasn’t for the adrenaline flowing through my veins, pushing me to run faster than I believed I could.

Once the PLA was out of sight, I slowed down to catch my breath and headed back to Sheung Shui to restock my supplies and nurse my wound. I was in a supermarket when I heard the rumbling of a vehicle. In the rear-view mirror of a car parked outside the store, I spotted a van driven by a hypnotised individual in military dress, a guard, armed with an assault rifle. Knowing there would be more, I was truly afraid. In my haste, a grabbed a bag of bread and ran to the storeroom, escaping through the back door into an alley.

In the alley, there was a worksite with an open drain covered only by safety netting, with signs prohibiting entrance to the public. Ignoring the sign, I entered the site and climbed down the drain; I had the entire sewage system to myself. I fished out my phone to use as a flashlight, before I remembered that it was broken. In a last-ditch attempt, I force-restarted the phone, miraculously bringing it back to life.

That was how I ended up down here. My battery is at 20 per cent and I shouldn’t waste it typing this any more. No one will read this anyway.

Historical notes:

This is an excerpt from a diary entry recovered from the SD card of a traditional “smartphone” device found in the rainwater drainage system under a street in Northern Post-Armageddon.

The data was highly corrupted, possibly from the water and radiation exposure caused by multiple nuclear detonations nearby. This excerpt from the “Notes” application was the only data that could be recovered, even with modern digital atomic reconstruction and simulation.

The text was timestamped with the nowdeprecated 32-bit Unix time standard at 1513404176, converting to Saturday, December, Year 2017. The precise time of the day cannot be identified due to the slowing of the Earth’s rotation.

The device was found lying near what appears to be a pile of bones, too decayed to be visually identified. Through forensic reconstruction, it was determined with 96 per cent certainty that the remains belonged to a teenage male between the ages of 13 and 21. Carbon dating has put the time of death in the early-to-mid 21st century, matching the note’s timestamp.

The boy likely lived through the early stages of Armageddon and experienced the violent annexation of what the writer refers to as “Hong Kong”, a region of China. 

Historians still don’t know which party initiated the hostile takeover of “Hong Kong”. The takeover was initiated by exposing most of the population to an hourlong strobe sequence implanted into a viral game, designed to take over the frontal lobe of the brain and implant thoughts designed to invoke a revolt. It is believed that the takeover was the first successful demonstration of militarised hypnosis technology, nowadays banned by the 02242 Geneva-Hague Convention against Weaponised Devices of Mind Control, ratified by all 233 United Nations members.

A developed and miniaturised version of the mind-control technology is what now powers our reality immersion headsets, allowing for a full takeover of the sensory system by reality implants.

Take this as a warning or as you please. But remember: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – Anonymous

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Lost in a trance


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