All They Wanted Was Angry Meat

1.

“What was all that fury on our sensors about?”

“A Viridian delegation from Viridian Prime unveiled at close range, sir.”

“Viridian Prime?”

“Complete with warm greetings and compliments and all that, sir.”

“I don’t get it. We weren’t scheduled to receive any visitors from Viridian Prime today, were we?”

“They’re not warbirds, sir.”

“If they don’t want to fight, why creep up on stealth?”

“Apparently they just want to talk, sir. Said if they unveiled at a distance, we might fire on them.”

“Damn straight we would have. What makes them think unveiling this close to our sensors makes them safer?”

“Maybe you’d reconsider firing at civilians at close range or something. I don’t really know, sir.”

“So what do they want from a humble border defense outpost like ours? Why not bother Tenebrus Central Command directly? Those guys do conversation better than we do.”

“Said they don’t want to talk to Central Command. They want to talk to us. Like, they want to talk to you.”

“What about?”

“Said they’d tell only if you agreed.”

“Sounds supremely suspicious, if you ask me. Is some new invasion tactic of theirs?”

“I mean, we’re loaded on weapons, sir. And they’re not warbirds, you know?”

“Yeah, that’s all nice and pretty, but we’re also farthest from any neighboring defense outpost, you know?”

“Shall I say no to them then? Or do we attack and take the crew?”

“You said they’re straight from Viridian Prime, yeah? They’ve got to be some pretty important folks.”

“My bacteria farm manager always used to say, ‘A conversation never really hurt anyone’.”

“You straight from the farm to front-line service? I didn’t know that about you.”

“Farm was destroyed by the Viridian attack, sir. Then, times of hardship brought about other talents.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Well, if they’re here to exchange words, let’s go wreak some sordid havoc with our words on them, then.”

“I didn’t know you were a closet poet, sir.”

“Times of hardship bring about other talents or something.”

2.

“I can’t believe our commander decided to agree to a ‘conversation’ on board the Viridian ship.”

“I don’t see why not. It shows we’re trustworthy and that we’re not all as paranoid as you are, Szari.”

“Masara, please, this is the technologically superior enemy we’re talking about.”

“Yeah, so? We haven’t sent him alone. And that’s why we’re all on standby for an attack.”

<Sigh> “…. you ever feel like our station commander was designed for this job? The way he stomps about you’d think he’s constantly leading us to war.”

“We’re on the border, Szari. These aren’t exactly easy times. He has valid reasons for being jumpy.”

“Or maybe conversations just really get him riled up.”

“The Viridians said they wanted to negotiate. Not your average hello-how-are-you-how-is-your-farm kind of conversation.”

“Negotiations imply that the two forces are somehow comparable in power. We’re no match for the Viridians, let’s be honest. Even if they’re not warbirds or whatever.”

“My dear optimist, it’s the Viridians who called us here to negotiate. Ergo, we have something they want.”

“Or maybe this is all a great trap and we’re going to die.”

“You always this charming, Szari?”

“Only if I can blame it on being perpetually hungry and having been raised on bacterial soup my whole life.”

“Ugh, shut up and let me watch the negotiations.”

“Councilor Baccara of Viridum Prime. Who do I have the pleasure of meeting today?”

“She’s kind of pretty, I’d say.”

“Are you just saying that because she’s naked, Szari?”

“I’m not alone in this. Watch our dear commander avert his eyes.”

“Everyone knows the Viridians are naked all the time because of their green skin, except for adolescent boys – “

“And painfully conscious Tenebrus commanders with questionable conversation skills.”

“And pessimistic Tenebrus senior staff on far-flung outposts.”

“Commander Zelony of Tenebrus.”

“Please, let us be seated. We meet in difficult times, but I hope there’ll be no need for armed guards?”

“This room is safe and my people within are disarmed, ma’am. Can’t speak for yours.”

“Come, come! Viridian hospitality allows that we receive our guests in one piece.”

“No guarantees whether they depart the same”

<Chuckle> “Who knows whether we are guests even?”

“You’re keeping up, Masara!”

“For a cynic, you’re easily surprised.”

“As you know, Zelony of Tenebrus, this meeting has been sanctioned to respond to your allegations that Viridian forces recently attacked your civilian property.”

“I did not know, ma’am. But we have lost three of our best bacterial harvesters, ma’am.”

“Deplorable!”

“Watch the faces.”

“All appropriately sad. Why, what’s wrong?”

“That’s exactly what’s wrong. Do you think they wore the same faces when they attacked?”

“Unfortunately, my dear Zelony, we are unable to offer either explanation or apology for these heinous crimes. All we have is an offer, which we hope which may be the only olive branch.”

“I’m listening.”

“In summary, we both know that Tenebrus is fighting a losing war.”

“Bad start.”

“Szari, shut up! What if she proposes a peaceful union of our people?”

“Masara, please. Don’t make me bring up my last meal.”

“With all due respect to Viridium Prime, ma’am. That remains to be seen.”

“But does it really, Commander? Look at your undernourished, hungry people. Do you expect them to fight a losing war to the end, subsisting only on bacterial soup?”

“Do not insult our armies, ma’am— “

“What if we were to offer your people free chlorophyll mutations?”

“About that last meal, Szari. Did you swallow it back like your words?”

“Your starving masses cannot support growth anymore. If anything, our records show a steady decline.”

“Fewer people hurt the environment less, ma’am.”

“Does that convince the mothers of starving, dying children? With our chlorophyll mutation, all your people will need is exposure to the sun and rechargeable crystals to fulfill their nutrient needs. Sure, your people will have green skins and some will grow film over their eyes to protect them from harsh light, but can’t you see how these superficial side-effects can negate the benefits? Does our proposal not solve your problem of perpetual hunger?”

“Is this a Viridian attempt to get us to surrender, ma’am?”

“Are you so fond of archaic eating habits that you’ll watch people die rather than adopt a miracle?”

“Starvation is hard on our forces, ma’am, but—”

“Why do you choose to battle both Viridian forces and hunger? Let us help you win one over the other!”

“We provide for ourselves the best we can, ma’am!”

“…”

 “Aren’t you grateful that awkward silence isn’t disrupted by the sound of your stomach growling?

“Do you think nudity is a problem, then? Our exposed skins absorb all available light all the time to nourish ourselves. We do not need to hide in crowded, suffocating, subterranean caverns. Can your methods offer your people such freedom?”

“Our clothing protects us— “

“Your clothing adapts, or even, confines you to your cold subterranean caverns. Our nudity is a very minor cost for the privilege of nutrition and warmth. There is dignity in the simplicity of accepting our bodies as is. Consider, the guarantee of an empty stomach at the cost of clothing.”

“We can’t force people to become part-plants, ma’am.”

“But we are offering your people a lifestyle where hunger will be the least of their concerns!”

“With all due respect, ma’am, the only thing you’ve fed us is propaganda!”

<Sigh> “Undeniably, I’m making an excellent deal.”

“She wants surrender.”

“Not a bad idea, if you look at our odds.”

“If their odds are so good, then why is she here asking instead of attacking?”

“Surely the offer isn’t free, ma’am.”

“All we ask is access to your city-gates so that our vessels can collect the unfortunate from their prison. A negligible price to ask for their survival. I’m sure their family here would agree.”

“…”

“We understand that you alone cannot make this decision. We will assemble tomorrow, so that you have time to make the right decision. Please review what we have offered, since such offers are rare in their generosity.”

“Much appreciated, ma’am.”

3.

“Well, senior staff, y’all saw and heard what happened.”

“Sir, we should accept their proposal if they have something to show for it.”

“You think they wouldn’t have come here with at least some lure of convincing us to adopt their ways?”

“We don’t know if that’s really what they came for, sir.”

“That naked councilor of theirs said that she and her team could inject enough of our crew with the chlorophyll so that we could experience that life.”

“If they were willing.”

“We have starved ourselves and our people long enough, I think. You think loyalty stops hunger? You’ve been on the bacterial farms, you’ve seen what life is like when food is so hard to get.”

“But sir— “

“But sir, what? All of the things she said today. Even if it is propaganda, doesn’t it sound so good?”

“What if Tenebrus Central Command— Would this be considered mutiny, sir? “

“Central Command be damned. Have you ever lived a life without being hungry all the time? Because that’s what they’re offering. And we have to share our space and borders with them, not with the bacterial farms back on Tenebrus.”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Yes, Szari. You’ve been quiet this whole time.”

“Masara and I conclude that the deal isn’t as rosy at it seems, sir.”

“If this has anything to do with administrative, bureaucratic or loyalist something or other— “

“The Viridian offer has a giant loop-hole, and it’s not nudity and green skin. Mutating people into photosynthesizing creatures may satisfy many of the carbohydrate requirements, but it doesn’t solve everything.”

“I don’t remember asking permission on your behalf, Masara.”

“Let her catch a breath, Szari. What’s wrong with the Viridian deal?”

“The problem is protein. Photosynthesis alone can’t complete dietary protein needs. The only plants that synthesize proteins are legumes, and even then, because they have bacterial hosts in their roots, which use atmospheric nitrogen. That’s why we harvest bacteria.”

“Okay, so?”

“Biology babble aside, the Viridians must be suffering from protein deficiencies. For their survival, they have to get their protein from somewhere.”

“This deal gives them complete access our protein farms.”

“We also know, and Szari, you’ll suffer the biology babble here, that nothing grows anymore on Viridian soil because all sunlight has been monopolized, captured and reflected. The soil has been burned but those naked mutants are fed.”

“…I’m still not seeing the light here.”

“No grass means no animals, so no animal meat. Even if they attacked our farms to steal our bacteria, they can’t grow them under their harsh lights. The only other source of protein they can readily get their hands on is…”

“Us.”

“…”

<hysterical laughter>

“…”

“Sir are you alright?”

“All of this is very tenuous sir, there’s no way we can report this to Tenebrus Central Command”

“Oh yeah? You think that Central Command doesn’t understand science?”

“Forget science, you think Tenebrus Central Command doesn’t understand a black market for all that bacterial soup that’s in our bloodstream and food?”

“Enough of this. Don’t harass the liaison.”

“I was only trying to do my job, sir…”

“As I’m sure you were. But we clearly have enough scientific grounds.”

“If he’s not convinced, I would suggest being locked up alone with Masara until he can convince himself. Not that this is a punishment I would recommend. Given that I endured it myself.”

“You think you’re rare, Szari, wait till you’re medium rare.”

 “Stop it! Are y’all senior staff or children?”

“…”

“<Sigh> …I don’t know if we’re defending Tenebrus from securing their right to eat or from being eaten…”

“Sir, with all due respect and apologies and all that, Tenebrus Central Command requests urgently an update and briefing of what happened.”

“All hail to Central Command and their great sense of timing.”

“But sir, what about what Szari and I uncovered?”

“Two things, that’s what. Tell Central Command we intercepted a Viridian intruder. Refill our armory.”

“Sir, what are we doing?”

“Attacking a bunch of Viridian civilians, that’s what. They came here for meat. But they’ve forgotten from years of non-eating that it’s easier to skin unclothed meat.”

“Sir, have you ever sampled meat?”

“A long while ago, when we weren’t forced to be hungry all the time.”

“Sir, am I permitted to disclose what happened on the Central Command report?”

“Yes, go ahead. And with that poetic flair of yours, tell them we avenge your former peers at 0400 tomorrow. Meeting dispersed.”

“Do you think that’s what the Viridians wanted?”

“Whatever happens is definitely what they get.”

 

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They Who Were Wordless

Ku was named with a rare consonant and the last vowel her wordless family had to spare and she had fallen on desperate times indeed. The Qxlb recruited Ku when they discovered that she sold slang on the black-market, desperately moving from alphabet to alphabet to feed herself. Ku had always considered them her last resort, and now that she had succumbed to it, she felt her end very near. The Qxlb chose their unpronounceable names from scraping the remnants of burned lexicons on the streets, an act which endeared them to the wordless majority. They made bold claims to restore the depleting vocabulary and often acted on them, using methods that Ku could neither accept because of their extremity nor reject because of their results. The government could not capture or describe that which they could not name, which served the Qxlb’s purposes quite well.

Ku had come to realize that her introversion had moved from a choice to a survival trait. It was not only the quiet introspective silence that she had habituated to, but an impressive taciturn armor from which words had to literally be wrestled out. Ku had grown up around the increasingly thinning rationed dictionaries, watching friends and families unspeak themselves around her, whispering the last of their letters from their hoarse mouths and falling to a vocabulary of grunts which could at best communicate anguish. There were literally no words to convey what she had seen or felt so she denied herself the experience of it. If she couldn’t describe it, even to herself, what could it be? The frustration of the sudden limits on their expressive abilities often drove the wordless to death, that Eternal Silence. The sad silences, the awkward silences, the pregnant silences were not for Ku. She clung to her armor terrified, willing to risk losing her voice entirely than to risk losing the few words she had. Sometimes these words would jump to her mouth, but remain unexpressed.

The Qxlb researchers as well as the government had tried to come up with alternative languages. Could they teach an entire population of adults to sign before their language died? Could they come up with any language at all that would not suffer the same fate from their using, abusing mouths? The more outspoken members of Ku’s generation still believed they could Do Something about this situation. They directed scattered efforts to word-preservation methods or new ways to communicate without losing the expressive power they had formerly retained. The problem had to be discussed, the solutions had to be expressed. Ku guessed that they were in denial of an entire generation had been rendered disabled by the very language they spoke. Still she couldn’t blame them for trying.

Ku’s illegal transactions were conducted behind a governmental shelter that taught speakers to sign. She made words that could be used for one conversation and then died out. This made what people spoke impossible to remember (since they weren’t real words), but they gave people the illusion that they had more words to spare. They had signed till they had calluses on their hands and yet they became increasingly incoherent. It was a failing venture by a desperate government, foiled at will by the Qxlb who refused to surrender to these indignities. Large populations of adult speakers could not be converted to signers in a timespan that could retain their language. The silent inexpressible frustration that the signers now held in their hands brought literal chokeholds, broken fingers and hands. Signs failed to be accepted as the new norm, and people soon thought their hands could be better used to squeeze the remaining letters from the living and the speaking yet. The demented signers now roamed the streets muttering, “_Ny l_tt_rz pl_z h_lp-“, begging any possible letters they could from those who walked alone in the dark. Ku clutched her few vowels close to her heart, when she braved those nights.

The Qxlb had assumed that by killing the verbose, the archaic, the voluble and the redundant, they could recover yet the words and letters unspoken. Like spilled blood, the letters disappeared shortly after their death though scavengers actively hunted for short easy vowels or the occasional soft consonant. By the Qxlb’s “munificence”, they could collect as much as they could commit to their memory. The scavengers knew they were now impure with the letters of another, but at least they could lend comprehension to their speech, a voice to their demands. They comprised of the Qxlb in large numbers. They disgusted Ku, but she could never name the feeling without losing words, so she accepted their recruitment as some form of final punishment. She was one of the most passive and withdrawn recruits yet for she had no words to bandy, not even for small talk.

The raid on the old libraries tonight would be in vain, Ku thought. The Qxlb were under the impression that freeing words from the archaic manuscripts and texts would enable people to use them. Blood-curdling scavengers had been recruited for this noble task because they could memorize the letters of others so rapidly. The Qxlb also deemed it necessary to find new letters to identify themselves with. Notoriety had cut into the exclusive usage of ‘Q’s, ‘X’s, ‘L’s and ‘B’s, which would soon become rare due to overuse. The Qxlb could not afford anonymity to the extent that even their own members were unable to identify themselves. Ku herself had grown accustomed to living in the perpetual fear of unspeaking her own name. She let others assign aliases to her and did not care to repeat to herself what they were, since she didn’t want to be remembered by them. Ku knew they envied her silence. She must be holding on to a lot of words, they must have rumored, let her open her mouth and speak for a change.

Despite all of the projected bravado that the Qxlb members shared between themselves, Ku could not shake the feeling that the Qxlb had run out of alternatives. Ku watched the more aggressive members hold Silencers to the mouths of government officials, vicariously living through the memories of squeezing every last word that casually rolled from their fat mouths, spilling between the flecks of their saliva while they laughed or chortled. Did they deserve justice? Did they deserve to have their voices heard just because they could afford the waste? Ku crept into the raided library herself, assigned to secondary shifts, reading aloud from the echoes of words left behind by her shift-members. Her painfully hoarse, fragile voice carried the combined weight of disuse as well as the magnitude of “new” words. Scavengers stared at her lips hungrily, memorizing their moves, driving their own depraved growls to the sound of possible prestige and power and expression. Ku did not doubt that they had contemplated scooping the last of the words from her should they spot her alone in some dark corridor.

When the long night ended, the Qxlb poured into the streets, fresh with new words of joy and celebration. Even the wordless who could still speak joined in the revelry, since victory did not need words to be expressed. The Qxlb could shout themselves hoarse into the horizons with a “victory” that they hadn’t “earned”.  Ku did not care for the Qxlb’s losses and she certainly could not care for their successes.

“What is the point of fighting over the few letters we have among ourselves if we cannot save the history of a people?” she asked herself aloud, nearly surprising herself with the sound of her own daring. By speaking aloud to herself, Ku had unlocked the dam that had kept her words and feelings and ideas in. Now that her voice had been reluctantly put through the motions of speaking, Ku knew it was time for her wordless suicide to begin. She stalked back into the library for government bodies that still bled. She pushed past the scavengers who were ready to press words even from the ghosts of these people as spoken life left them. She dipped a sharp tip of wood in the slow-pooling blood and began to scratch words onto the recently emptied pages that had been read from.

“We are the Atlassian people. We speak a language that has abused us. Very soon, we will be silenced forever. There will be nothing left in our language. Without words to use, we will be thoughtless and nameless. Do not forget us…”

 

 

The story that came too late

Sadness pulled his arms around me and held me close. In the close comfort of grief, I could cry.I could weep and it was justified because I was literally enveloped in Sadness. Sadness waited until the hiccups were gone, until my eyes had run bloodshot and the tears had saturated all the tissue paper I had to spare. It was a strange feeling relishing the sheer volume of tears that I wept and the way my body actually responded to Sadness.

“Are we done with this now?” Reason tapped my shoulder, exhausted from the ordeal and requesting on behalf of the rest of my body and life that I stop stringing my high-strung brain even further. Reason does not understand why I’m sitting here weeping, and why this weeping has to happen. It must be allowed to continue, tissue paper or otherwise. He tapped my shoulder in an attempt to get me to my senses.

“Go. Away. Please.”

“I’ll leave you two to it, then,” said Reason, unable to hide the disgust and left to make my excuses to the rest of the world.

When I woke up the next day, I was cold and without the comfort of Sadness. Perhaps it was a good thing he wasn’t here, and I could tell that Reason was very glad to see him go. I used to ask Reason why and he would always say that he could get across to me only when Sadness was not around.

“Um, so what’s her condition?” I asked of the patient upstairs.

“I don’t know. Someone asked me to leave.” By someone I knew Reason meant me and when he was not on his best behavior, I could tell that I had done something wrong. Something that went against Reason.

“I would have checked in on her if she wanted me anywhere near her”, muttered Reason. He wanted to be helpful. He wanted to show that he could genuinely care, if caring was within reason. But she didn’t want him anywhere near her and she was adamant, even on her possible death-bed, about enforce this restriction. “Reason has nothing to do with this,” she screeched. The rest of us were too intimidated by her to argue otherwise.

I walked into the patient’s room, bracing myself for the storm that was to follow, rehearsing every single line I had thought of to her face and an enumeration of the ways I could convey it to her.

“You’ve been crying last night,” she said.

“I have…”

“Sadness does have comfortable shoulders, doesn’t he?”

“He does…”

“You don’t seem too affected by his presence though.”

“I’m not. For once in my life, I genuinely don’t regret crying.”

“It’s a sign that you’re still alive.”

It’s also why he left me cold in the morning. What can I possibly say to this fragile creature who was withering away before my very eyes, letting go of life finger by finger and taking her time to slide gracefully to death?

“Bet Reason must have been beyond confused.”

“He was. He wanted to talk to you about some things, which he feels might make you better.”

“Poor Reason. Trying to be useful all the time.”

“He’s only trying to help you. You should listen to him.”

“I never listen to reason. It’s in my nature. You, of all people, should know that.”

“I am acutely aware of that.”

“Will you miss me when I’m gone?”

“I don’t know. I suppose if Sadness is around, I might.”

“Otherwise?”

“There’s always Reason.”

“You don’t listen to him as often as you should.”

I was not going to tolerate shrewd observations from her once wild, tumultuous and untamed form. “Maybe if you had, things would not have come to this.”

“Maybe.”

“……There’s something I have to tell you.”

“What?”

“I’m scared of what will happen if you go away and never come back.” Is this what all the trepidation had fallen to? The words sounded like an anticlimax in my own ears.

“You mean when I die? Don’t worry, it’s only natural.”

“Is it though? Sadness never seems to die.”

“Yeah, but that’s what makes him old and immortal and weird. Rebirth is how I keep my skin glowing.”

“Shallow.”

“But true nonetheless. You could say I have an affliction like Reason does. We have to feel useful. We have to feel like we’re driving our goals to an end.”

“….Why can’t the endings be happy?” The tears were about to come back and she nearly hissed at me.

“For God’s sake, I love you and I wanted to talk to you and not Sadness. Don’t you dare invite his creepy form in here.”

“I thought you liked him. As in, you enjoyed his company. Or his shoulders. Or something.” I started to wipe the tears that hadn’t yet fallen.

“Sometimes. Now is not one of those times.”

In all of this conversation, she had been growing increasingly pale and I suddenly realized that if she grew any paler, she would have merged into the background and that would have been almost as good as dying on me.

“Um. So. You’ve wasted all of my time arguing with me. I’m about to go now.”

“Please don’t,” I said, desperately clutching her hand, keenly aware of the shadow of Sadness that waited just outside the door, waiting for me to explode into his arms again.

“It has to be done,” she said with a finality that left me hollow.

“Will you never ever come back? Please? Not even for Reason’s sake?”

But she had gone. She had left me without answering the question and I did not know how to interpret her permanent silence. I reeled for a while knowing that she hadn’t answered. Did she mean yes? Did that mean that she would truly abandon me?

Reason was the first one to come to me when I left the room, but Sadness was waiting behind him, almost respectfully. I wanted to show Reason how much Sadness respected his presence, how humble he was in the presence of Reason, but I knew that Reason would not listen to me as much as I didn’t listen to him.

“Love has died, hasn’t she?”

Aroma

You know what the air smells of in the cold early mornings that I wake up to? Not the bacon I could have got the supermarket for $3 off, not the cheap coffee brew that is $5, not even the Starbucks brew that is $7 and most certainly not the $11 aromatic shower-gel which claims to give my skin a shine it will have never worn before.

When I was younger and I heard the children coughing in the 3 degree warm streets, I used to hurriedly stub out my cigarette because I felt responsible somehow for their wellness. Now the very same children share lighters with me, and I regret having unnecessarily squeezed out many of the good ones before I had used them to their fullest. But it will not do for me to hide in the shade and the poverty, I have to find something to eat before I am reduced to chewing my own sweater. And it will be a shame, because I am not nimble enough to steal another one at this age.

I was told, in my youth, that the posture of a lady speaks a lot to her beauty. Sit up straight. Walk upright. Never slouch. Walk confidently. Sway your hips if you have them. Set your feet on the ground with determination as if you have a right to walk the earth. Wear the shoes that scream your birthright. Keep those legs in shape, my girl. You never know when they will come handy. I cannot prowl. I cannot lurk. I cannot sulk or stalk. My old, worn out, uncomfortable heels that I have stolen from someone’s backstage clatter down the unfortunate alley as I sashay my way to find food.

The grubby little girls stop and stare. The grubby little boys stop and stare. When there are so many pairs of poor, filthy and uneducated eyes on me, I have to obviously do something spectacular. I take a long pull on my cigarette and blow it up into the cloudy sky, like the dream-catchers at fairs blowing up sparkles into the night. I live off the idolization of children now. This is what has become of me. It doesn’t even spike my guilt when I hear the children break off into groups behind my backs and practice blowing circles from their thinning lips and fragile lungs into the foggy air which heralds sub-zero temperatures.

Clack. Clack. Clack. Do you hear my heels talking? Exactly. They’re counting out how much I care. I can’t be responsible if they grow up and decide that the only way they seek their worth is by ruining their hard-earned money on cigarettes.

I try to enter the subway station, where the morning rush hour has started. I squeeze my form in their midst. A few of the “Excuse me, please”, “Oh, I’m sorry, don’t mind me”, “Lady, can’t you see where you’re going?” -s later, I have already brushed past 14 different kinds of coats and retrieved 6 different tickets and 3 different denominations of spare change. They smell of perfume and money and leather coats. They smell of the things I can’t have. The smell of the life that I have dreamed of beyond my cigarette-ensconced hell-hole which is comfortably warm because I burn both my money and health to keep it alive.

Finally. Finally I feel equipped. There is the store nearby where the old shopkeeper makes it his business to evaluate the functional operations of my legs, critiquing it from shape to how accessible it is. Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack. My wispy hair tries to follow the wind. Clack. Clack. My presence is announced into the store by the little bell that hangs by the door. All eyes are on me, the show must continue. I pull out five of the seven dollars from today’s conquests in notes that I haven’t bothered to carefully fold. I must dispense with someone else’s money as though it were rubbish and not as if it were my blood. After all, it’s not my blood.

“Two packs,” is literally the first thing I have said all morning. My babies are transferred to me over the counter and even though I am weak in the knees at the thought of tearing off that paper, I hold my ground.

“Will that be all?”

See, this where life is unfair. It should have been all. It should have sufficed for everything. It should have made everything okay, especially in this dingy little world and this pathetic store where I am being leered at and the air is the smell of last decade’s subway.

“Uh….And uh….a soda.” I have declared a momentary truce with my stomach and perhaps I will smoke out the rest of my hunger if that is what this war will take.

For $1.39 and taxes, I have two dollars left. Two dollars that will be negotiated afterwards with my stomach and my escapism and my hopeless need for attention.

The wrapper on them claims that cigarettes are injurious to health, and that there are versions that are “cancer-free”. It almost sounds like the “I will leave my wife and marry you” line that the man says when you realize that only one person out of the two invited you to their life.

You know what the air smells of in the cold early mornings that I wake up to? Happy little cancer-causing lies. That’s what they smell of.

The One Who Stole Beauty

“What are you doing?” asked the menacing voice of the little Aditya, cornering the poor girl under the slide. Mihika pulled her knees closer to herself, trying to instinctively protect the most precious thing she had from this bully, which was a story book that now quivered against the stretched material of her frock. She whimpered a little as he stalked closer, certain that he was going to brutally pull at her hair in an amusement and bracing herself for the pain to come. Aditya, an intimidatingly large 6 year old, repeated the question, certain of an unsatisfactory answer and certain of the outcome that was to follow.

“Nothing! Go away!” she claimed, rather helplessly, hoping that he would leave her alone. His muddy paws crept closer and Mihika sincerely hoped that she was protecting the book well enough. As a first strike, he pulled her braid so hard that her eyes watered and in the painful squeal that followed, swiftly captured the book with colorful pictures and beautiful words.

“Oooh. Look. The ninny brought her stupid book with her!” he declared to his allies, now forming a circle around the silently sobbing victim. “Please give it back to me,” she cried softly, knowing that she would rather submit to further physical injuries than watch her beloved companion be mangled under his grubby rough paws. Her skin or her hair would grow back, but the beauty of her stories would be lost forever if he claimed possession of it.

“Did you see how she squealed?!” continued the bully, garnering the necessary admiration from the group of other little boys who were confused with their loyalties but none so brave to step up for her cause. “Little Miss Ninny and her stupid paper friends and stories. Look how she’s crying now!”

Mihika knew then that her tears were an open sign of her weakness and she hastily gulped them down, following his every movement with her panic-stricken eyes and sincerely hoping that some intervention would get the book out of his hands.

“Oh, and what have we here?” Aditya jeered, thumbing through the richly adorned pages of the book with his brutal fingers, straining the fragile binding and leaving dog-eared pages in his wake.

“Give it back to me!” Mihika shouted, finding the sudden strength in her voice and launching herself onto him. His eyes narrowed as he found her real vulnerability. He was too strong for her and she was thrown back into the mud, her face landing among the flowers and her limbs aching from the impact. The book soon followed on her head, and again she had to close her eyes to hide the tears. Three pages which had been disembodied from the book floated beside her, leaving her story forever violated.

Mercifully, he had decided that he had done enough to her for the day and he was bored with her already so he rushed off to find fresh victims on the play ground while she wondered if she should report the matter to the adults. Altogether too often, they dismissed her horrific tales of the afternoons, claiming that it was normal for children to bully each other, that it was normal for boys to be somewhat abusive to girls, that perhaps his vested in her meant that he liked her. Aditya’s mother especially could brook no complaint that her angelic son would be capable of something so heinous and the little 6 year old hypocrite knew exactly how to clear his own name.

Mihika tried to reach out to a few of the girls on the playground, but they shied away from her, knowing that that her mere presence was an invitation for trouble. She went home lonely and miserable, blaming her bruises on herself and devastated that her lovely book of words and stories and eternal companionship had suffered a wrath that she didn’t know how she had deserved.

“Perfect”

This is a story inspired by the revelation of a character from one of my favorite TV shows. In a way, it is a story that tells of a situation similar to that of Dr. Julian Bashir, Chief Medical Officer from the show Star Trek, Deep Space Nine.

I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself. The youngest Nobel Prize winner. I could remember how uproarious the media was. I was the youngest female to have ever been bestowed with such an honor. Suddenly the whole galaxy knew my name. My revolutionary spaceship designs would be implemented throughout the galaxy. I had just accepted my award and my place in history with an eloquent thanking speech. And now I stood backstage. Everybody was so proud of me. Everybody except myself.

My parents entered the room. They had just answered questions about the media’s new infatuation – me. After countless interviews, my parents stood beaming and proud. My father was an architect. My mother, a doctor. They felt so proud narrating stories of their “little” daughter. Not so little, I was twenty-five.

My mother came forward and hugged me. I couldn’t return the gesture. I was disgusted with my parents. My rage was boiling in the deep, dark pit of my stomach. Everybody has their secrets. As do I. Now, I was a beautiful, brilliant genius with a sparkling life ahead of me, supported on a strong foundation of many awards, scholarships and hard-work.

When I was six, I was the exact opposite. I was a slow, clumsy child who was awkward about everything. I had difficulty in grasping the simplest of concepts which seemed to come to all my peers with natural ease. I found it difficult to talk and I had problems differentiating between simple, everyday objects like trees and houses, while all my classmates learnt how to use a computer and solve differential equations. I never could really understand what was going on around me. I never understood what happened and why it happened. It was made very clear to me by all who were around me that I was inferior. I began to realize that I had been a constant disappointment to my parents since the time I came into my existence. Turns out I had a developmental abnormality. I was shorter than most other children my age and I appeared to be less-able than them in other ways as well.

Before my seventh birthday, I paid a visit to the Galactic Medical Federation with my parents. The best doctors all over the galaxy worked there. Yet, it wasn’t completely impervious to corruption. And then those treatments began. It started with my mental growth and ended with my appearance and that caused my change. I was genetically enhanced and engineered. My IQ jumped five points a day over two weeks. My communication and understanding of the world around me became better. My ability to grasp and absorb had increased far beyond than I what I could. Everything about me changed from awkward to normal to outstanding.

But I was genetically engineered. I was not natural. You can call me a mutant, a freak. And genetic engineering is highly illegal. Eugenics was against everybody’s basic code of ethics and morality. Yet that never stopped my parents. And the treatments unfortunately never did wipe away the memory of my previous six years, living as the exact opposite of what I was now.

My father, the architect. He falsified records and identities. He corrected and improved upon the design of his daughter. He engineered a daughter to replace the malfunctioning one he had been given. He says that if it wasn’t for him, I would have spent the rest of my life under remedial education.

I suppose you think I should thank them for changing me from an ugly duckling to a swan. Correction, a genetically-engineered swan. A fraud, an illegal masterpiece.

But in transforming me, they removed what was fundamentally me. I’m an illegal freak of nature now and it’s all my parents’ fault. They never gave me a chance. After all, six is too early to predict the future of a growing child. And behind the brilliant genius and gorgeous looks is an illegal medical therapy.

My mother is crying into my arms now as she sees the steely, cold look in my eyes. She crying into my arms now, where I’m clutching my laurels and awards and certificates. She’s trying to explain her deed to me.

She tells me she kept blaming herself for it. That she spent many sleepless nights wondering what went wrong during the pregnancy and that why did it have to be me. She couldn’t bear to watch me suffer as I fell behind a little by little every day, as I became the slowest learner. Later, after my therapy, we moved to another city and transformed from the class dunce to star genius. My parents tried to hide everything from me. “We’re so proud of her, “was their constant annoying refrain.

But unfortunately, the treatment did not wipe out whatever dull blurry memories I have. I will always remember. Even though they loved me and wanted the best for me, I was unable return the gesture to them anymore, even though I had transformed from something “ugly” to something “beautiful”. The main point is that they failed to appreciate me then and now they wanted to. Why not just accept me for what I was? Why was I not always perfect for them? Was I not their baby? Did I not have the right to be accepted as and what I was? Did I have to satisfy certain criteria to be “worthy” of being their daughter?

Now, I was the galaxy’s most promising young scientist and not to mention my gorgeous looks as well which would get me a great life ahead. But I can’t find it in myself to be arrogant or happy about it. Now that I’m the center of the media’s attraction, my secret’s bound to come out.

My father tells me that he’s willing to serve five years in a low-security penal colony. He’s willing to shoulder the blame for the fraud of genetic engineering. At best he can get a ten-year sentence because he performed the therapy without my consent and only as the power of my benefactor.

I’m touched by his gesture. Even though I despise them, they’re still my parents and I love them for some inexplicable reason. I loved them then and I promised myself that I would try and accept myself, forgive myself for being a disappointment to my parents. And after the treatment, I had to somehow continue to love them. It was the last shred of my originality. The only thing that I tried so hard not to change after all these years. But its difficult. But it’s the only bit of that six-year-old me that will stay with me now and forever.

The dream that left me behind

I knew I was almost at the end of my dream.

Almost. I’ve been in this dream and it’s variations so many times before, that I can tell that it’s ending, where the part about his history is revealed, where the promises are finally broken and where all hopes slowly die out. He would now start the fight, make those awkward statements and we would slowly begin accelerating towards a definite end.

Most of the ends would be sad, as the Weaver knew that the user’s runtime was nearing it’s end. Like every other common dream addict, I would wake up, frustrated and hungry for more, log in my required hours of dreamtime and sink into another misleading, beguiling fantasy. That’s the problem with addicts. We love to be lied to.

We are completely disconnected from reality, at least until the cruel Weaver counts down every millisecond unto the ending of the dreamtime. But then again, the Weaver is benign enough to let us refill our hours, so I probably shouldn’t complain.

I’ve dreamed many times, so many times that I think there’s a special circuit somewhere in the Weaver that saves runtime logs and dream-theme variations just for me. I can tell when the Weaver is being creative, or when it’s just borrowing another cliché.

Though, if it’s a question of creativity, I can’t claim much for myself either. Whatever the story is, whoever the background characters are, it’ll always be about him. He and I will prevail. Just the two of us.

The Weaver keeps me trapped in an electronic vortex of recycled emotions. A cycle that ends only until dreamtime runs out.

Different people deal with their first Weaver experience differently. The Weaver creates beautiful, credible, charming fantasies, which start off as mundane. By the time the story peaks, the viewer is completely in the Weaver’s reality. Before the viewer knows it, situations begin to go downhill, and soon enough, the viewer is rudely interrupted to ask for more dreamtime hours. A person can either be devastated by the end and never return again, or hold on to the illusion of further happiness and refill their hours. That’s how it works.

I don’t remember the last time I woke up for dreamtime hours. Could have been hours ago, or years. I don’t know. I don’t care. As long as the Weaver can serve my emotional needs, I will always be here. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know which dream I’m in. I’m a terminal addict, one step away from being the last stop before absolute assimilation. That’s probably when there’s no hope left for me at all.

But this dream is not like the others. I don’t know if the Weaver is malfunctioning or if I’m cascading into the last stage. Earlier I used to write down my dreams to get over my obsession. Today I write to record an anomaly.

I know I’m at the end of my dream. I can sense it. The fights have already started; the fairytale is slowly starting to show some cracks – all symptoms of the last stage of normal execution.

Usually, what would happen now is that things would get worse. Except that’s not happening this time.

We fought once last week, we argued about our relative differences yesterday morning. The veteran that I am, I know that this is the stage where I would completely be apathetic to his whims, remind myself that he was only an illusion, and that my dreamtime hours would be ending soon and just wait for the Weaver to finish the formalities before I woke up again.

However, this time, the awkward moments are being unusually spaced out. The disagreements are a lot less frequent. And that worries me.

According to prior experiences, we should have been angry this morning, continued on about yesterday’s issue, defended our stances to the effect where the rebuttals would get personal, and then started heaping insults at each other, till we knew that our relationship had shattered into many irretrievable pieces. That’s how it has been for all this time. That’s how it’s always supposed to happen.

In this dream, this morning, he showed immense reserves of maturity and forgiveness. We talked over what happened yesterday, he was patient, I understood what was expected of me, we soon arrived at a mutually agreeable solution and our relationship was just as strong as ever.

The surprising part is, that this is not the first time this has happened. After the second time or so, when this happened, I was telling myself that the Weaver was probably meandering around, trying to get a jaded viewer like me believe it’s immaculate lies.

No, no. This is the ninth time. The ninth time, the cracks in our relationship have shown and still, the Weaver hasn’t come to the part where it disintegrates completely. Usually, the dream would end after the third. At most, I have experienced four such incidents before the dreamtime runs out. But this has been the ninth instance and my wake-up call is extremely late.

I can somehow see through the Weaver’s pretense. Apparently, every relationship gets stronger with greater number of issues sorted out between them. I was completely numb the first three times, the fourth time made me want to laugh at the Weaver for its ingenuity. By the sixth time, I was beginning to grow fond of him. By the seventh I was truly attached. By the eighth, I was able to feel those emotions that every new viewer feels about the dream experience. I felt young again, and in my own way, I wanted to thank the Weaver for bringing out that part of me which I thought had died.

But the ninth time? By the ninth time, I am worried. I am scared. Either the Weaver has concocted some twisted torture for me towards the end or a cascade failure is in progress. I want to remember this dream, but then again I want the complete comfort of my fantasies.

I don’t know if this dream will let me hold onto him.  Though, some part of my mind, despite all these years of conditioning, is ignoring that, and holding on to him for real. I know it’s going to end.

Maybe, just maybe, this time, we will be together for real? The Weaver has never crafted such dreams before. So maybe this is not a dream?

It is so absurd to even suggest something so beautiful could be real…. and I mean really real, not just Weaver real.

I guess the more time I spent musing about this malfunction, the more dreamtime milliseconds I waste. Well, I paid for this, so I might as well enjoy it…

Personally, I hope the Weaver has crashed. If, after all these years of lies, I can finally sense the truth, then the Weaver’s circuits have truly evolved into something worthwhile.

But then again, if the Weaver has crashed, then how will I ever get to experience the pure joy of initiating another dream? How will I even wake up?

I don’t want to forget. I don’t. But I want to wake up. It’s just a question of time before I decide or more accurately, it’s just a question of dreamtime…

Nightmare diaries: Awake

I woke up to the sound of Kenny’s whisper.  She seemed to have been calling me for quite a while.

“Finally, you’re awake,” she said, sounding more frustrated than usual.

I suppressed a groan. I thought I had earned the right to sleep after nearly forty eight hours. Just when I was about to doze off to a deep, peaceful slumber, Kenny comes along and ruins it all. I can’t imagine what she wants from me now.

“Go away, Kenny. It’s late and I’m tired.”

I was angrily shushed in loud whispers for apparently rousing the rest of humanity with my question. I was beginning to grow resentful. Not only did she not let me sleep, she didn’t even let me ask why I was so brutally deprived of it.

I stared around at the darkness, trying to get my eyes used to the idea that there might just be a light, around here, somewhere. I fidgeted around my bed, trying to reach out for the switch to my bedside lamp. Kenny’s cold hand firmly grasped my wrist and she didn’t let me switch the light on.

“Kenny, what? I don’t want to go anywhere today. What….what are you even doing here?!”

“Shut up!”

I must have been really groggy to let Kenny get her way with me for this one. Too tired to ask any questions, I was about to sink back into my warm bed, when Kenny put her cold lips to my ear and said, “I know you’re tired. Just stay awake for a while more. Just for a little bit more.”

“Why? For what?” I asked, shrugging her cold, annoying grasp off me.

“Stay awake and you’ll find out.”

I decided then that I was about to curl back to sleep, feeling more annoyed with Kenny than ever. I was too tired to deal with her new mysterious demeanor.

“I don’t want to find out.” 

She held my cheeks in her cold hands. I still remember the fleeting impression I had of her fingers when she touched my face. It felt like frost growing on my skin, numbing my face. Kenny had always that effect on me.

“Listen to me,” she whispered, suddenly gentle. “I know it’s hard, but don’t sleep just yet. In a few minutes, let the nightmares will come by. You can sleep peacefully after they’ve gone. I promise.”

“Wha…? What nightmares?”

“Not just nightmares. Night-mares,” she said, carefully pronouncing each word separately to make a clear distinction, which I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t need to be protected from bad dreams.

Kenny waited for something.  In the distance, there was a growing sound of the clatter of galloping hooves. I was sure that whatever Kenny was referring to had arrived.

The rhythmic sound seemed to grow increasingly louder, until after a while I thought the entire house shook in resonance of those apparently powerful hooves. Things on the shelf began to rattle, the window panes quivered and I was a little too painfully aware of the dull crashing sounds coming from the kitchen — cutlery, no doubt — and the slow clouds of dust that seemed to be appearing from every corner of the house I had been too lazy to clean in all this time.

 The sound of this stampede succeeded in waking me up, and for a while, I was glad that Kenny was there. Though I didn’t want to openly admit that to her. What if I had gone completely to sleep, and not managed to wake up, when this pseudo-earthquake rocked the house? I clung to the edge of my bed tightly, marveling at this phenomenon.

Then, finally, all was still and quiet again. Kenny laughed softly, disrupting the silence.

“Well, they’ve gone, for tonight. They were much softer than I had expected.”

I was too shaken, almost literally, by what I had just witnessed. “Wait. What? What just happened? I mean, here you are in the middle of the night, waking me up to watch an earthquake?!”

“Night-mares,” she said, sounding smug. That word again. Night. Mares. Not just plain simple nightmares.

“You should be grateful to me. I saved you.”

“From a bunch of horses?”

“From Night-mares. They aren’t just ordinary horses. They’re looking for riders.”

Right. Bad dreams needed riders. Got that……somewhere in my head, at least.

“And this involves me how?”

” They choose the innocent slumbering people as their riders, and then lead them on to the world of all that is twisted and disturbing. If I had let you sleep, you would be hurtling into the abyss of your own subconscious, led on by a creature that feeds off your imagination.”

My sleep was returning to me now, and my eyes were almost closed. I vaguely registered parasite and dream somewhere in my head. My head, strangely enough, was beginning to throb. I really needed to sleep now.

“Can I please go to sleep now?”

Kenny laughed her soft, musical laugh again. I was too stupefied to register any sensible emotion.

“Yes, you can sleep now. Your dreams will now be yours to keep,” she said, gently caressing my face with those fingers.

I snuggled back into my blankets without further encouragement. What was all this? My puzzled brain kept asking itself. There was a mish-mash of coherent thoughts in reply. Big horses. Dreams. Cold. Kenny….

Wait. Kenny.

“Hmmph,” I struggled to say, before Kenny left, “how did you even get in the house?”

More musical laughter. More of the implied smugness. Some corner of my tired mind was feeling increasingly stupid.

“Who d’you think has been watching over you all these nights?” She asked.  She claims to be sneaking into my house everyday. Voyeurism. Or burglary, whichever way you wanted to look at it. My eyes were giving up. “Goodnight Kenny,” I said, and then willed my mouth with whatever feeble control I had left to keep it shut before I said something random, impolite and that would evidently reflect my sleep-deprived state.

As my head touched the pillow, I vaguely registered that Kenny’s goodbye was drowned out by the howling of the wolves.

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.

 

Sabotage IV: Termination

<Recap: Watchtower and Fingers are two operatives who are using an exiled spy’s robotic companion to constantly monitor him. Unfortunately, the robot is built on a missile guidance system which is incredibly lethal and adaptive.>

Watchtower was woken from his fitful sleep by a very white and pale Fingers. Immediately, he knew it was trouble.

“It’s that robot, isn’t it?”

Watchtower waited for his blurry eyes to focus on the poor screen rendition of what had once been Bishop. The old man had been smashed in the head and his pillow appeared to be drenched in blood.

Fingers was restless and fidgety and absolutely incoherent.

“I swear I was just trying to make the thing move away from him! The damned firewall began to spout gibberish and started to corrupt the data, so I went back into the system and tried to clean it up but…”

“Fingers…”

“But the system override malfunctioned at the same time and then I was…”

“Fingers. Stop,” said Watchtower, now almost shaking the younger man back to sanity.

“I can’t Watchtower! I think I just killed the old man!”

“Calm down and tell me what happened.”

Fingers sighed deeply. He pushed his glasses up against his nose and then began his tale.

“So, after you fell asleep, I started watching some of the videos. It was mostly the usual stuff I expected. Him showing off his survival skills in the forest. How many birds he’d killed and eaten. The right way to hunt for one of the more edible species. Tree climbing 101 and suchlike.”

“That’s some seriously gruesome content, but go on.”

“Then, he started telling the robot about itself. About what are the things it first learned to do. How the new appendages were working and so on. The last few longs are basically about how to hack at trees, you know with knives and stuff.”

“Okay, and?”

“And Friend sort of began to move his arms. It sort of looked like he was imitating Bishop’s motion from the last video, because I’d played it. I got worried that I had inadvertently activated a routine, so I tried to go back into the system and then turn the damn thing off, or at least move it away from the old man, without blowing our cover. Friend’s security firewall suddenly locked me out. And when I was scrambling to uncover why, the visuals knocked out as well. The system came back online only after I’d stopped trying to access it, and then our visual trace opened up to show me this.”

Fingers sighed after he’d finished. There was a long pause while Watchtower’s mind was in overdrive. He wasn’t completely illiterate when it came to managing computers. Fingers looked tired and harassed. It was almost as if the guilt of having actually killing another person was wearing him down and he didn’t know how to manage it. Watchtower scrutinized him carefully. He wasn’t used to bloodshed. He wouldn’t be able to survive more than a few minutes in battle, unless he was behind an electronic device.

“Wait, there’s something I need to confirm for myself,” said Watchtower, leaning over the computer.

“You can have it,” said Fingers, pushing the keyboard away from him in some expression of revulsion and disgust. he didn’t know how he was going to explain his actions to anyone. It was obviously an accident, but with such a high-sensitivity target, who would believe that?

Watchtower considered the situation carefully. Even though they had managed to locate such a target, there had been no conclusive evidence that they would have been able to gather any information from this source anyway. Besides, most of Bishop’s data would have details about the war, foregone information that would work serve only to rile up tensions and serve as more fodder for conspiracy theorists and historians. What need had this generation for such tensions?

“Fingers….”

“I have no chance out of this, do I?” asked the younger man, face sick with guilt and with the thought of the inevitable consequences.

“Fingers, answer me this. Can you somehow retrieve the footage of the last few minutes before Bishop died?”

“What good will that do? I’m incriminated as I am.”

“Fingers, just trust me on this. Try to hack into it, one last time.”

Last time, he remembered, a robot like Friend would still have it’s underlying locomotive control managed by….

Fingers groaned and began to type furiously all over again. A wall of corrupted alphanumeric data blocked Fingers out.

Watchtower’s eyes widened as a calm, smooth voice recite…..

“Target assigned. Codename classification: Bishop. Status: Exiled. Location confirmed. Target confirmed. Mission completed.”