One Man Show

“Next.”

Encumbered by his backpack and winter coat, Howard shuffled toward the young man with short brown hair and wearing a black facemask and rubber gloves; the half-completed hotel registration form extended in his free hand was rejected. He was directed towards a low table and told to complete it and make any choices for optional accommodations. For 150 Australian dollars per night, he could get a room with a balcony. Howard had had a cigarette before entering the hotel with two other people who smoked, an attractive young Australian woman and an American guy. They were both paying for the breathing space. Howard couldn’t afford it and, besides, he’d been cutting back. This would be an opportunity to finish the job.

The twenty-six-hour trip from Jacksonville had been remarkably smooth and, boy, the Australians had their act together. The fifty people on his flight had been whisked into buses without delay and taken to the Sheraton Hotel. Soldiers had handled their luggage and were standing by to escort them to their rooms. VIP service.

“Next.”

His immigration form was accepted by a young Australian Border Force officer who began typing clumsily, asking Howard to clarify some of his written answers. Within ten minutes, he was parting company with Erica and Aaron, promising to meet for a cigarette in two weeks. Ha Ha. Howard wouldn’t be smoking anymore by then. He’d join them, however, to maybe get Erica’s phone number.

The room was nice, especially the black-marble-clad bath that included a walk-in shower and jacuzzi tub. But it wasn’t meant for long-term occupancy. The only drawers were in the closet. The main room was furnished with a king-size bed and work desk with office chairs. Not even an armchair. That would be fine with Howard, who was going to be teleworking during quarantine.

Several times during the first afternoon in his room, Howard caught himself picking up the pack of cigarettes and heading out the door to take a break, only to find himself facing a hotel employee sitting in a chair, enforcing self-isolation. He smiled sheepishly and waved at the bored employee, never the same individual. These Australians were clever. He couldn’t get to know his guard and bribe them.

The fourteen-day quarantine didn’t start until midnight, so Howard took the calendar from his backpack and numbered fifteen days; he would be released on 23 November. He resisted the urge to cross out the first day because it didn’t count. He felt cheated.

Howard faced Day One squarely, ready to do whatever was necessary to keep Australia safe. There was one thing he really liked about the quarantine: meals were delivered three times a day and left outside the room, accompanied by three knocks on the door. The food was excellent, the menu varied, but there was nothing extra. It was less than he was accustomed to eating and that worried him, until he read the information sheet from the hotel; he could order outside food for delivery, or even get selected items from the hotel kitchen. On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to lose a couple of pounds, secure in knowing that the Australian government would make sure he had plenty of calories during quarantine. Sweet deal. He’d stop smoking and lose a few pounds, maybe even adopt a healthier diet.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally crossed out Day One, but he was a little hungry when he slipped between the expensive sheets to see what was on TV.

Howard was an early riser. Thus, breakfast at eight a.m. was too late for his liking, so he kept something out of his meals to have a pre-breakfast snack: juice, some raspberries, a banana, a roll with margarine. Of course, saving something for the morning left him less-than-satisfied in the evening. He accepted that he was in quarantine, which was turning out to be a lot like boot camp, except for the lack of exercise. The hotel staff had thought of that, supplying a guidance sheet that included a list of exercises to help him stay healthy. He’d never thought about how active he’d been just moving around the house, the office, the city, and all of that was gone now. He started doing all of the suggested exercises. That made him even hungrier.

“Damn!” he exclaimed aloud, examining his paltry dinner, the roll and fruit he’d set aside for the next morning. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

It was with relief that he crossed out Tuesday, Day Two, as finished.

Howard realized in horror that he had been brainwashed. He waited for breakfast to arrive, checking the clock constantly, opening the door to see if perhaps the delivery person had forgotten to knock three times. He picked up the phone receiver several times, ready to call, but waited; he would give them an hour before complaining. He hated people who demanded attention by complaining all the time. Maybe they delivery schedule was different; after all, everyone couldn’t get their meals at exactly the same time. Breakfast arrived at 8:55 a.m., five minutes to spare. Famished, drooling, he rushed to the desk and tore open the paper bag.

His anticipation collapsed like a deflated balloon when he removed the warm plastic dish. It was oatmeal, with some blueberry jam or something on top, with a couple of shaved almonds.

“What the hell?!”

Neither the bag nor the plastic container was marked as “DF,” which meant dairy free. God only knows what he was eating. This was a game changer. Now, he not only didn’t know when to expect his next meal, he didn’t even know if it would make him sick.

He plotted his revenge as he ate his gruel. Day Three crossed off the calendar.

Howard’s suspicions were confirmed the next day, when he spoke to his friend, Ted. Ted knew a guy who’d flown to Australia during the supposed Swine Flu pandemic of 2009. The guy had tested positive, according to the Australian experts, but had no symptoms. It was all a hoax, designed to get money from quarantined visitors and push the deep state agenda for global totalitarian government. Just one little piece of the big pie.

“Who’s this friend, the guy who supposedly witnessed this? Maybe he’s lying.”

Ted scoffed. “Man, he’s in hiding since he blew the cover off the story. I met him on the dark web. What he knows…”

Howard had heard enough sales pitches to be suspicious. “How does this guy know about the deep state…all that shit? I never heard about it.”

“Would I shit you? You don’t hear the truth on the news, Howie, that’s just b.s. for the masses. Use your head, man.”

“So, why do you think this guy got a positive test result but didn’t get sick? Isn’t’ that called asymptomatic?”

“That’s a word they made up to cover the truth, Howie. Asymptomatic is another way of saying, ‘There ain’t no fucking Covid.’ Get my drift?”

Howard didn’t but he let it go. Until the nurse came by to collect some samples from his throat and nose. He would know in within two days. They wouldn’t call if his test was negative. Time would tell. The rest of the day was uneventful, except that the meals came at random times, always within the hour he’d allowed for human error and laziness. They just made the time limit a couple of times. And some of his meals were labeled “DF.”

Something was going on as he crossed off Day Four.

The Covid test came back positive. Ted had been right. It was all a coverup for an international conspiracy. Howard examined several web sites Ted had suggested, and his worst fears were proven correct. How could he have been so blind?

The meal delivery became more inconsistent; sometimes his bags were labeled “DF” and sometimes not; sometimes they didn’t arrive for more than an hour late. He’d called and been told that his meal was on its way.

With his positive test, someone came around and probed Howard like an alien investigator, claiming to be checking for symptoms. There would be no symptoms. That was all bullshit. He didn’t think they were implanting a device in his head either; they were collecting DNA and other cellular samples that were being used to classify him. They wanted to turn him into a slave. He’d read about it. But there was nothing he could do until he could escape from captivity. Without external assistance he was trapped. Ted suggested he should remain calm and not let them know that he was onto them. Otherwise, he would disappear like so many others. Ted knew a web page that listed their names.

Day Five.

The food had been poisoned. Howard got diarrhea on the sixth day of quarantine and the people who answered when he dialed for information claimed not to know what had happened. He knew. His food had been mislabeled for days, to confuse him so that the experiment wouldn’t be disrupted. They were studying him, to see how far he could be pushed. It was about mind control. He’d read about it on a web page.

He decided to see if escape was possible, so quietly entered the hallway, blocking his door open with a shoe. He didn’t get three steps before a policeman, who’d replaced the hotel employee who’d been stationed in the hallway the first day, appeared and asked Howard if he needed assistance.

“No. I was just looking around.”

“Well, sir, that defeats the purpose of the quarantine, doesn’t it?”

Diabolical. “I guess so.”

Howard returned to his room and washed his dirty clothes in the bathtub with some detergent that had mysteriously appeared outside his door.

Day Seven proved the truth of Ted’s ominous prediction. Howard had been intentionally infected with an experimental bioweapon called Covid-19. It was all described on the QAnon web page. But Howard wasn’t going to be one of their patsies. When the nurse called to check on his status, he didn’t tell her about his fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, aching, no way. They would have to get their data from someone else because Howard wasn’t going to play along.

He was on his own. They weren’t going to break him, not in two weeks. The next few days would be critical.

The toxin they’d given him was strong. He spent Day Eight in the bed, or slouched across the day bed, shivering. But he was able to maintain his cover of not being ill, so no one came up to collect more data and probably reinfect him. He flushed most of the food down the toilet, to avoid more poisons and disguise his activity. That was one of the most important precautions he’d read about: don’t let them know what you’re doing, especially your efforts to circumvent their observational program.

He watched a lot of TV and got his work done. It turned out that he could complete a day’s worth of meetings in a few hours because of the time saved not driving all over. No one knew about his medical condition and thus his captors were unaware of the success of their operation.

He was already feeling better when he crawled into bed.

Knowing that his communications were being monitored by them, the unidentified cabal referred to by QAnon, Howard didn’t tell Kathy that he’d been poisoned when he spoke to her via WhatsApp on Day Nine. But he let his guard down and she was quick to attack.

“What do you mean, you’re the victim of a conspiracy, Howie? You never mentioned that before. What’s going on?”

He laughed and tried to sound nonchalant as he responded. “I was just kidding. This quarantine is some serious shit. I can’t leave the hotel room, not even for a cigarette. Nothing.”

There was an awkward silence. She was thinking. That worried him because Kathy thought of herself as rational, not easily fooled, and thus she was susceptible to the disinformation campaign being waged by “them.” Sure enough, she showed her gullibility with her next words.

“Have you been talking to Ted? You know, he spreads that crap for fun, to see how stupid people are. He’s some kind of anarchist. You didn’t fall for it did you?”

Howard had to lie to guarantee his safety. “No. Haven’t heard from him yet. I didn’t know he was into conspiracy theories. Who’d of guessed.”

He could hear her head shaking as she considered a response. Finally, she said, “At least you can’t act without thinking…you do remember your surprise birthday party, don’t you? When you called the police?”

He’d forgotten about that embarrassing incident. “You didn’t have to bring that up, Kathy, don’t worry. I’ll get out alive…”

“What the hell?”

On Day Ten, a nurse came to collect a sample for Howard’s second Covid test. His temperature had decreased so they didn’t have an excuse to take him to a secure facility for further testing. He got lucky there. It wasn’t in his hands anyway. If they wanted to keep him for further observation, all they had to do was falsify another positive test. He was at their mercy.

The police state called all the shots.

Lunch arrived late and Howard was pacing near the door, waiting for the clatter of a cart outside, three knocks on the door. Maybe he’d been distracted. He opened the door and was shocked at what he discovered.

The door across from him opened at the same time and Erica, the attractive Australian woman he’d sat near on the flight from San Francisco, faced him across the hallway. She quickly motioned for him to join her, so he slid a shoe into the door and covered the six feet separating their rooms in two steps.

Once inside, they shared their experiences. Erica led him to her private terrace where they smoked a cigarette. She had gotten a positive Covid test too, which made them wonder what the Australian Border Force was up to. His suspicions were confirmed by Erica, who had learned about the deep state from QAnon as well. Two people on one flight victims of the conspiracy. Far more than coincidence. They agreed to meet every day, but he’d bring his own cigarettes next time.

When the knock came at her door indicating that lunch had been delivered, Howard waited for the sound of the cart leaving before slipping out and picking up his own lunch, before entering his room, removing the shoe after him.

A salad and a bag of sea-salt potato chips.

Day Eleven made Howard wish he’d never left Jacksonville. It wasn’t the bioweapon he’d been subjected to, nor the contaminated food he’d been given, nor the psychological warfare that had been directed at breaking his willpower; he was finally broken by the microwave waves bombarding him day and night. Just like the embassy in Havana. He had stumbled into a field test of a new psychological weapons program using multiple assaults. The entire quarantine program was a cover up for a top-secret CIA black operation coordinated with the Australian Border Force.

His suspicion was confirmed by Erica when they met for a cigarette before lunch. They had come to the same conclusion: they would probably be released unharmed when the experiment was completed, but there was a small chance they would be selected for further tests. They didn’t want to risk disappearing, to be subjected to torture and mind control experiments for the rest of their lives.

There was only one way out. They went to the balcony rail together and looked down at the street 18 floors below.

Howard was ashamed of his weakness when confronted by the precipice of Erica’s balcony. There had been nothing to say. It was out of the question. A quick glance, exchanged in a moment, had sufficed to share the futility of escape. Trapped, they accepted their fate, getting little solace from knowing they were not alone.

“What are we going to do?” Erica asked hopelessly. She certainly didn’t expect Howard to have an answer.

“I don’t think we’ll be chosen for the advanced studies. After all, the odds are in our favor.” Howard scoffed and added, “We have as much of a chance of becoming long-term research subjects as we do of dying of Covid-19, if it were real.”

Erica nodded quickly. “It’s funny, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“How they can take us any time they want…we’re at their mercy. They can infect us with a bioweapon or use us as guinea pigs in secret research. And nobody will know or care…”

“There’s always tomorrow. We’ll know the truth, as long as we don’t let them know that we figured it out.”

Time was running out. They were scheduled for out-processing the next day, Saturday, Day 13. They would know then whether they were going to spend the rest of their lives as test subjects. Those unlucky enough to be chosen got the bad news the day before their release. It had all been discussed on the internet.

They had another cigarette in silence.

Howard faced an army officer and a policewoman the next day. They informed him that he would be released from quarantine in the morning, free to continue to his destination. He’d been unable to contain his frustration to the people who thought they were giving him good news.

“So that’s it? The experiment continues…if you even know what you’re a part of.”

“What?” asked the older man, wearing a camouflaged uniform.

The young woman interjected, “Oh, it’s okay, Sergeant, he’s referring to a conspiracy theory in which people in quarantine are being subjected to Covid-19 and other viruses as part of a secret government program.”

“Oh, is that all? Very well, sir, take care after your release. And enjoy your stay in Australia.”

They were smooth. Erica verified Howard’s experience, although she hadn’t mentioned her suspicions. They welcomed everyone, even those who would disappear after quarantine. She suggested they should stick together, maybe there was safety in numbers.

That was the plan at the end of Day 13.

Howard was in the early release group, between 4 a.m. and noon. He checked his room before rolling his suitcase into the hall, watching nervously as the door closed permanently. No re-entry. Erica appeared from her door and they headed to the elevators together. There was no one else in line to check out with the local police and New South Wales authorities.

Erica went first and was finished in a few minutes, before being escorted through the back door of the hotel, the same door they’d entered through two weeks earlier. Howard’s palms were suddenly sweaty as he faced the expectant face of the middle-aged policeman. None of the officials was smiling.

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