Guilt

Thinker Raven had a very curious problem for the first time in all her life.

As a Public Philosopher, her job had been a relatively sedentary one. Through the Network, she was able to sense everyone’s feelings and emotions. And as such, her primary task was to maintain emotional equilibrium amongst all the citizens.  It was true that all the people who were connected to the Network had no emotional privacy. All their feelings were known and shared by everyone else who was on the Network. In fact, most of the citizens, and even many other Public Philosophers believed that the Network was the only reason there was no crime, malice, rumor or gossip, or even secrets among the citizens.

So, it was indeed a surprise to Thinker Raven, when the first corpse was found.

After almost centuries of no homicide or crime, the surprise was so astounding that Thinker Raven had to meditate in silence for sustained periods in order to restore equilibrium to the other citizens. Those who were rapidly alarmed, or shocked by the trauma, or disgusted, or frightened, immediately reached out for help on the Network, and the Public Philosophers were almost over-taxed in trying to restore calm and peace to everyone.  It took several hours of propagating calming thoughts and soothing emotions over the Network in order to reduce the mass panic. For someone so young, Thinker Raven seemed to have the remarkable mental stamina to work with the other Philosophers to end the crisis.

Thinker Raven and all the other public philosophers assumed it was a freak occurrence and tried to help the public mentally justify it by claiming that it was random;  it was probably a physical accident; it wasn’t anything worth being curious about and so on. Even though the Philosophers got away with it the first time, they could sense via the Network, that people were feeling impatient, unsatisfied, and the more fragile members were slowly being accustomed to the horror of death.

In the Network, unless someone was a sociopath, schizophrenic or some other serious mental illness, it was hard to discern the individual identities of the citizenry.

While on the outside, the Philosophers maintained a blind eye of calm resolve; internally, a few of them were restless.

They scanned every memory, every thought, every sensation to locate the deceased and tried to find out who, what or why could have killed that person. This was a task undertaken by only some of the Philosophers, especially those with the talent of compartmentalizing their thoughts from the rest of the citizenry, so that the images of blood and gore would not spill to the rest of the Network and serve as an incentive for further violent acts. Even then, these select Philosophers promised to undergo some form of a purge to remove the images and memories of death, before they were united back with the mainstream.

Thinker Raven was never tasked with such a problem as she faced now.

Depression, mania, obsessions and abnormal psychological or social behavior was dealt with swiftly by the combined brainwashing of several Philosophers. Nobody on the Network could harbor a motive and get away with it. And yet, a homicide had happened. For the first time ever, the telepathic power of the Network had been abused. Raven was surprised that only so few of the Philosopher’s community felt so strongly about it to take it up as a personal venture of justice.

“Please tell me we have good news,” said Raven to Thinker Augustus, a comrade in this deed, falling back to vocal communication, in order to give her thoughts some rest.

“We managed to identify the deceased,” offered Thinker Augustus, his voice and the shrug of his shoulders conveying a sense of disappointment even a non-telepath should be able to read.

Given the enormity of locating one person among millions on the Network, Raven was impressed. She wanted to know more.

“It’s classified,” offered Augustus, unhelpfully. For reasons that were obvious to both, no doubt.

“Don’t think it to everyone.”

The likelihood that anybody would be eavesdropping was much lesser than the likelihood that someone was reading their mental exchange from a distance.

Tacitly, the two of them disconnected from the rest of the Network, knowing that they had only each other’s minds to themselves.

For a moment, each Thinker had to suppress the urge to probe the other mind in the conversation, knowing that it was a gesture of trust and courtesy that each had opened up their mind only to the other. Raven ignored the by-product memories that Augustus’s mental resolve inadvertently let through. She felt Augustus cringe with embarrassment as she realized that he was filtering out her memories and emotions the same way too. The intimacy of the moment felt a bit awkward, until they thought of the other Philosophers again.

It was Thinker Taylor. Raven remembered him during the council gatherings. He was a respected figure in The Network and amongst the Philosophers. If the Network found out that the person who had died was someone so venerated, the disturbance would destabilize the Network, and Philosophers could actually die from trying to forcefully brainwash the knowledge, the trauma, the misery from so many minds. Perhaps it was a good thing that the Philosophers had instituted some form of blanket control on the masses.

Raven asked Augustus if he had accessed Taylor’s memories. Augustus was instantly contrite. It was the mental equivalent of blushing. Of course not. It was not acceptable social behavior to access someone’s memories without prior permission. Raven began to use her instinct to hone into Taylor’s legacy, his ideas, his thoughts, his component within the Network, his function within the citizenry. Augustus tried to deflect her penetrating queries.

“Why are you stopping me from his memories?!” asked Raven, unable to control some of her frustration. This was no time for modesty. Homicide was a very real terror that cast over their beloved Network.

Augustus winced as he encountered some of Raven’s angry wash of emotion. He had already copied Taylor’s memories onto his own mind, forcing himself to undergo the sensations of every experience of Taylor himself, so that those memories became his memories.

Besides, those memories were locked away carefully, monitored by the other Philosophers. As a very primitive counter measure, the Philosophers had assumed that the guilty would be the first ones to access the memories of the deceased. Usually, when the Network received such a transit request to a null member, everyone in the community was alerted. Thinker Taylor had not yet been identified as null, but in the event that someone did Raven and her entire group would be exposed. The other Philosophers would not take kindly to covert activities. The Network was an open society. They did not support covert activities.

“Oh”, vocalized Thinker Raven, understanding the protective measures that Augustus had taken.

She hesitated a bit about accessing Augustus’ memories, unsure of how she would be able to differentiate between those that were relevant and those that were expressly private. Augustus shrugged off the awkwardness brought on by such chance intimacy and then released specifically those memories that belonged to Taylor. Given the penetrating telepath that Raven was, she couldn’t help brushing past some of Augustus’ memories, understanding the general tenor of some of his personal opinions. She was surprised to find herself resurfaced in some of them, especially in very complimentary terms. She internalized a slight sense of glee that he might have been thinking about her. She quietly suppressed it before Augustus detected the breach in his own defenses.

Thinker Taylor was indeed one of the first Thinkers to have conceptualized the Network. Raven and Augustus rushed past the sensations and memories of the creation of the fabric of their society. How easier it was to lie then, how much easier it was to kill, to steal, to be violent. Images of cruelty and violence passed by, staining their minds. Raven was sure that they would be discovered if they did not undergo some form of the purge once they were connected back to the Network.

But wait. Wait. Augustus paused their adventure. We have started from the middle.

Raven was a hesitant again, about taking the plunge. Thus far they had been accessing Taylor’s memories that were associated with the Network. But what about those that came before?

Augustus took her back to Taylor’s birth. Raven’s professional training of years and years of mental calm prevented her from getting as shocked as she should have been. Thinker Taylor had been born outside the Network.

A woman with long, comforting hair stood by the window. Her skirts were dirty, and there were stains of blood on it, but she smiled down at me and asked me to be good. 

There was a lot of noise outside. People were screaming and shouting. The woman had now moved away from the window and was coming to get me. The glass of the window shattered as someone punched through it. “Damned mind readers are here! They’re going to have us all!” 

“What should I do?” asked the woman of me. I just wanted to hold her skirts close to me and stay there in the comfort of her arms forever. 

A drunken brawl invaded the door. Again, noise and confusion, and there was even some blood. 

“I killed the bastards, ye hear!” said one of the big burly people entering the door. 

“I’m taking Taylor with me!” screamed the woman as she ran from the group, half in tears, half in rage. She stumbled over a miscellaneous collection of corpses. Some charred. Some deformed. But almost all were certainly dead. 

Fear. So much fear. And hate. There was so much confusion and angst.  How did Thinker Taylor suppress all of these memories before he joined the Network?

Raven’s mind was reeling at the sight of so much destruction and gore. Augustus rallied around his reserves of mental strength to support her. He must have been very strong during the transfer procedure then, to watch such horrible images all alone and not need the additional support of some calm.

“Augustus,” Raven, called out, her nerves frayed at those images, unable to continue to take any further mental stress. More images, more detail every time. Truly, if she was a Thinker who had to suppress all of these she would have died too.

“Augustus…” she called again, sensing her own helplessness.

“I’m here,” said Augustus. The sound of his calm, re-assuring voice brought back the reality of their being.  Raven was instinctively about to reach out to the Network for some tranquility to restore her own destabilized calm, to somehow clean herself of the memory of so much hate. Then, she remembered, this was covert. She would risk contaminating the entire Network if she reached out to them in this state.

She was alone. Forsaken by the beloved comfort of her Network.

But Augustus was still there. And he was buttressing her mental defenses with his own. Despite the fact that Raven had managed to penetrate his resolve, the strength of his support now made Raven realize that she could sense his thoughts only because Augustus let her.

“We can continue only if you’re ready,” said Augustus, sounding immensely warm and gentle.

Thinker Raven evaluated her prospects again. She could obviously hear it summarized from Thinker Augustus, and a passing probe would be enough to know whether he was fabricating any part of the story or not. But then, his entire evidence gathering effort would have been in vain. As a Public Philosopher, her first duty was service to the public. The other Philosophers might find some comfort in wrapping all this up under an accident, but Raven wanted a conclusive answer. For the sake of the people. Not just her curiosity.

Besides, she was immensely surprised to discover, that she enjoyed this communion with Augustus. And while he might have been shy about it, she wasn’t going to be. Might as well mask it under professionalism.

But Augustus had already embarked on the other journey as soon as he sensed she was ready.

“Taylor, what is this?” asked the old man sitting near me. It was the same man who had staggered in drunk, who had separated me from my mother, driven us out onto all those corpses. 

“You’ll soon find out, “I said, being mysterious. I knew the thing worked. Of course it would work, as soon as another mind was connected. And it was going to be him. 

“Do you want to try it?”

“Wha…?Who? Me?!”

My contraption quivered a bit ominously, as if knowing full well what was going to happen. Fueled by my mind and controlled by my memories, I could sense that it appeared dangerous. After all, why shouldn’t it?

“Yes. You,” I said. With one swift strike, I had him pinned to the floor, while I extended my machine’s other receptacle to him. He struggled and he struggled. I could see his doom in his own eyes. My reflection was all over his eyes. I was in control. In power. And once the receptacle was activated…

“Okay, so we know that Taylor is a power maniac,” said Raven, unable to suppress the waves of revulsion and disgust any longer. Augustus felt them and paused, confused and apologetic.

“I thought you wanted to experience Taylor’s memories by yourself?” he asked, a little scared at Raven’s crumbling strength.

She had always assumed that transferring memories was an easy process. No wonder it was forbidden by the Philosophers on the Network.

“Please…please summarize the entirety of his experience.” I’m not strong enough for this, realized Raven, feeling strangely humbled. Instantly, Augustus performed the mental equivalent of calming her down, surrounding her with positivity, relaxation and soothing thoughts. Raven let her gratitude engulf him.

Augustus vocalized the thoughts for their mutual benefit. This transfer of thoughts was getting a little too intense for both of them right now.

“Our home world was overrun with violence and pain before the Network was created.”

Yeah, I gathered as much, wondered Raven. But then she checked her impatience.

“I’m sorry I have to preface the cause of death with so many publicly known facts.”

“Just…just…”

“The Network was originally created to mentally condition and coerce people. To force them into submission.”

Beg. And Die. 

The force of power, the intoxication, the sheer control. Augustus couldn’t hold them back. And Raven was dragged along with him in the roller coaster ride. The Network, it’s powerful conditioning, it’s massive force binding the fabric of society together. The Network. Peace. Harmony. Forced Harmony.

“This….man……died of………”

Guilt. He died of forcing so many people to conform to his mind. He died because all those memories that he had repressed within the Network were being forced back into him. Taylor may have joined the Network. But he couldn’t purge his feelings from it. His need for power, authority, control came back to him in a feedback loop and the Network decided to kill him for it’s own sake.

“Augustus! You know what this means?”

Was the very thing that they were trying so hard to sustain capable of killing them?

“….that the Network can kill us?”

Raven did not know how the purge was going to clean that off her memory. Nor did Augustus.

 

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