He tried so hard to make the bad thoughts go away, but they kept circling. Ideas of self-harm collapsed upon one another, creating an avalanche of suicidal ideation. His employer-issued NeuroLink began buzzing. This was a warning: be happy or face the consequences. He tried to stop the inevitable from happening. He conjured up images of smiling puppies running in a field. He thought as hard as he could about a cute baby kitten crying for his mother. None of it worked. The bad thoughts were too strong, and his NeuroLink shocked him until he passed out from the pain.


Hours later and he was in a hospital. The nurses in blue (the party had decided that blue was a softer, more value-neutral color than old-fashioned white) came and went. None looked at him. He was tied to the bed. His old NeuroLink had been replaced with a new one. This one had a single purpose: to play soporific music designed to make him relax and forget all about the bad thoughts. The music sounded old. He remembered hearing about something called jazz in high school, and for some reason, he thought that the music was jazz. It sounded human rather than digital. He drifted in and out of sleep for hours.

The last time he awoke, it was night. Rain drummed on the hospital’s windows. Behind the rain, the holographic advertisements played. One featured non-binary actors hawking soap and other chemicals, while another tried to stir feelings of nostalgia with a pastoral scene invoking a long-dead version of the United States. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that that ad was for life insurance.

“Brave new world,” the voice said. The voice belonged to a slim, bald, and pale man in a gray suit. The man wore a white shirt with a black tie. The only flash of color was on his lapel. There sat a small pin indicating his membership in the ruling party, which was really just one clique of the two who battled for control of the same party. The man had all the markings of a bureaucrat. His smile oozed, and his self-effacing humor was too well-practiced to be genuine.

“I heard about what happened to you,” the bureaucrat said with intentional softness. He never lost eye contact, and he sat at the edge of the hospital bed with a kind of unnatural rigidity. “We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to you in this time of turbulence. Of course you are aware that your company had to terminate your contract.”

He nodded to show he understood what the bureaucrat was saying. All companies wanted happy and productive workers. Sad ones and suicidal ones were a liability. Fortunately, given that everyone worked as an independent contractor, it was easy to let such liabilities go. The party would make sure that nobody would slip through the cracks, either. There were plenty of programs.

“In order to alleviate stress from your professional life, we are prepared to offer you a deal.”

A deal? He tried to think about what kinds of deals the party would offer him, but the soothing NeuroLink cut any thinking off early and forced him to just accept everything with a relaxed apathy.

“We reviewed your record and consider you available for two options:  permanent disability given your repeat offenses, or permanent relocation to one of our experimental colonies. If I were in your position, I would consider such an offer a no-brainer. Number two is exciting and offers you a chance at redemption. Very few people can enjoy such a chance.”

Again, he tried to think, but could not. He sat in his bed and let the softness of the sheets consume him. He let the sad horn and the repetitive melody sap away the remaining traces of his free will. The bureaucrat stood up, patted him on the shoulder, and thanked him for his choice. He had not indicated any preference, but that was not the point. The decision had been made for him the moment he committed the crime of having bad thoughts.


He did not remember the journey from Earth to the colony at all. When the bureaucrat saw him off to the transport ship, he had handed him a pill and a cup of thick water. The pill, in combination with the new NeuroLink, threw him into deep and dreamless sleep. He did not wake up again until the transport ship’s cabin doors opened and a figure in green fatigues called out his name.

“You will be at bunk 16 in cabin 82.” With that, he was forced to stand up and follow the others dressed like him to the series of hive complexes made out of red and green polymers. The image made him think of Christmas, despite the colony’s lack of snow or cheery fat men. It was clear that this was intentional, as Christmas music was pumped directly into all the NeuroLinks from time to time.

Each cabin looked the same on the inside: a modern longhouse with plastic sleeping cabins devoid of privacy. All the bunks were stacked on top of each other, and in the middle of each room were feeding troughs that would be filled with food three times a day. The lack of comfort was by design, he knew. At one of his old gigs, where he wrote pre-selected articles about government colonization missions, he wrote paragraphs detailing how the American military spent their days on deployment. The cabins had been built for use by the military. When the colonization wars ended and the military returned home, the party felt no need to update the cabins for the new users.

He did not know it yet, but this was because the new users were seen as temporary headaches to be dealt with swiftly. No use in making utilitarian spaces plush for cattle, the party thought. He and the others were the cattle.


The days on the colony began and ended the same, with the exhausted men being sung to sleep by long-dead jazz singers cooing in their ears via the specialty NeuroLinks. In between sleep, the men were put to work outside. Their tasks were desultory: moving rocks around or making collages out of widgets. The collages were supposed to create patterns, but none of them recognized the patterns at all. Everything looked random and without purpose. Few words better summoned up their lives on the colony.

Then the captain appeared. The captain arrived in a large luxury ship painted a garish shade of gold. He swaggered out of the ship’s suicide doors wearing a white suit with two party pins on his lapels, a giant cowboy hat, and smoking a long cigar made of pitch-black tobacco leaves. When he spoke, the captain exuded a confidence that was alien to the assembled mass.

“The party is proud of you lot. You went from being pathetic to productive here, and now it’s time for your reward!” The captain clapped his hands together and made a show of cheering. He shook everyone’s hand and patted some on the shoulders. He winked a lot, too. Back on Earth, he would have been seen as sleaze personified, but on the colony, he offered hope somehow by exuding feelings other than despair.

For an hour, the cabins were abuzz with activity. The men in green uniforms, who were paramilitary and associated with a private company rather than the American armed forces, kept shouting orders at everyone to scrub up, clean their bunks, and look as presentable as possible. The men were given extra food rations and even supplied with cups of wine. All ate with gusto. He ate loudly, forgetting his troubles and his manners. He even forgot about the ever-present jazz music in his ears.

At noon, all were assembled outside and lined up into neat rows. They were told to stand at attention. In front of them was a giant monitor that projected a hologram above all of their heads. The hologram showed the captain, with his pearly white smile permanently etched in all of their irises.

“What I offer you lot today is permanent happiness. Yes, you heard that right. Permanent happiness. We keep the secret only for select individuals, and we have decided to start a new program on this colony. After all, who better to receive this gift than those who have been denied it for so long? No, not all of you will receive this gift, but those lucky few will be blessed for the rest of their days. I wish you good luck and Godspeed.” The captain winked and the hologram shut off. The paramilitaries did not give them time to digest the captain’s words. The colonists were pushed in groups of twos into a large cabin near the landing zone. Those who were not pushed forward were told to remain standing. The jazz music grew so loud as to drown everything else out.

It was after nightfall when he and another man were pushed forward into the large cabin. The inside was dimly lit and included only a tatami mat and a few ropes. A large and fat paramilitary told both men to step on the mat and face each other. The two men did so, and after a few seconds of silence, the paramilitary barked again.


More silence followed, as neither man engaged the other. They stared in bewilderment and did nothing. The fat paramilitary kept shouting the same command over and over, but it did nothing as the two malnourished men were too scared and too exhausted to fight. Finally, out of frustration, the fat paramilitary emerged from the surrounding gloom and stood in the center of the tatami mat.

“Heads or tails?” he asked.

The other man, whose shrunken features made him look like a raisin, called tails. The coin flipped in the air and was caught. The fat paramilitary examined it without showing either man.

“Heads.” With that, he removed his sidearm and shot the raisin man in the forehead. He was dead before his body hit the tatami mat. Two other paramilitary men picked up the body and shuffled it off into the gloom.

“Go back outside and wait until the next round,” the fat paramilitary said to him. He turned and began walking outside, but did not walk fast enough. The fat paramilitary shouted at him to run and he did so.


The night wore on, and he fought several more battles. Realizing that his blind luck would not hold, he decided to actually fight his opponents instead of rely on coin flips. To his surprise, he found that he had a natural viciousness that the others lacked. He broke one man’s large nose, while he dislocated a small woman’s elbow. With each fight, he grew more and more vicious. In between bouts, when he was forced to stand outside, he had to fight to stay awake. Exhaustion commanded his eyes to close, and the constant soft jazz did not help him at all. At one point he felt his knees buckle, but he managed to catch himself. Then, when a paramilitary called his number, he would snap back awake and would feel a surge of adrenaline. He had to admit that he loved the feeling. For the first time in his miserable life, he actually felt alive rather than just a clump of animated tissue.

“Last fight for you, killer,” the fat paramilitary said. His final opponent looked far more brutalized than the others, which meant that he was a fully-fledged combat veteran. The man was missing an eye and the wound looked fresh. His torso was a nest of scratches and cuts. He looked down at his own torso and saw the same thing.

“You boys have an audience, too,” the fat paramilitary said. In the corner, surrounded by dark shadows, stood the captain. His white suit was as bright as the sun in the large cabin. He winked at both men and clapped.

“There’s no return now. You either win and get what everyone wants, or you lose and get nothing,” the fat paramilitary said with finality. He stood back and admired his clever line. He also admired the quiet intensity of the two combatants, who bounced on the balls of their feet like hungry tigers. The fat paramilitary shouted his familiar command.

He raced across the tatami mat and tried to take the one-eyed man down. His takedown attempt was thwarted, as the one-eyed man sprawled out and shoved him off. Realizing that a different attack was needed, he tried a kick to the groin. It was blocked. He threw a punch to the throat, but missed. He stuck out his thumbs and aimed for the one eye left, but was similarly blocked and parried. His confidence was running away fast, as he could see and feel his opponent’s superior skills.

He was taken down with ease. The one-eyed man passed his guard and entered the full mount. He began hitting him with punches and elbows, and one of them opened a nice cut on his forehead. In the background, they both heard the captain cheer on the bloody scene. This made one-eyed man’s attack more ferocious. He kept throwing punches and elbows, and even used his knee to try to connect with a low blow. It was this move that triggered something so random as to be almost providential: as the one-eyed man brought his knee up, he heard a slight tearing sound. This was followed by an immediate rush of pain throughout his body. Try as he might, the one-eyed man could not hide the fact that he had somehow managed to tear his quadriceps. Maybe the injury had occurred in an earlier battle, he thought. Maybe the adrenaline has finally worn off and now he was aware of the serious injury. It didn’t matter; when he failed to stand up again, the fat paramilitary noticed his distress. He squatted to examine the injury. Satisfied after a few seconds, he pulled out his sidearm and shot the one-eyed man in his one good eye.

He was declared the winner while still flat on his back. He was too groggy to comprehend how he had been saved, and he was too hurt to be happy. The captain and the paramilitaries did not care; they lifted him up by his armpits and dragged him deep into the gloom of the large cabin. The captain was saying something to him in his jolly cadence, but between the ringing in his ears and the jazz music of the NeuroLink, he could not make out anything. In fact, he did not understand anything until the final moment, and then only briefly before he lost his sanity for good.

The captain threw open a pair of heavy polymer doors somewhere within the bowels of the large cabin. There, bathed in thin blue light, were the corpses of all those who had lost their fights.

“That’s the secret, bub,” the captain said. “Good eats makes for happy dogs. So dog eat dog!”

He tried to scream, but was too tired and too hungry.