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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Pets and lovers

I was still confused as to what I was supposed to do with Kayla. No, that’s not her real name. I just find it a more convenient method of referring to her. I think if I told anyone the truth about Kayla, I would instantly be famous and rich and shortly contacted with the suspicious people the government send along. You know what I’m talking about. Those tall, well-dressed fellows always with sun-glasses and really impressive badges. They also refer to you formally and look up on your criminal records. The unpleasant ones will also carry a weapon of some form as well.

So Kayla is an alien. Yes, you heard me right. No, I am not delusional. I was watching meteors in the desert, collecting data and looking for inspiration for a story or two. All of a sudden, one of the meteorites falls and we have visitors. There was the entire blaze in the sky, smoke on the ground sort of business. Hi. We’re these species who were just buzzing past and our engines failed. Just thought we’d drop by. Pun completely unintended yet absolutely unavoidable.

I apologize. I’m rambling. I won’t go into the details of how I found her and how I discovered that she didn’t know a word of any of the languages in the world and had this weird tendency to fuse all my gadgets together with her hands. I honestly didn’t know what I should be doing with her, as she refused to leave me alone and the authorities needed documentation I was unable to provide. I decided to keep her. Like a pet, albeit unauthorized. See, I’ve got a well-bred alien. Say hello to Kayla. Except that’s not how things worked out.

What was more, as I tried to make my back through human-populated areas to my residence, I discovered that different people perceived Kayla differently. Kids think she’s a harmless teddy bear. A really old woman at the gas station thought she was her son. When Kayla tried to explore some of the forested areas near my modest settlement herself, the forest ranger even mistook her to be a bear. The man went berserk as he saw me strap her into the passenger seat of my car. Well, it was late at night and visibility was poor. I was going to pass through his scrutiny looking perfectly normal with a bear for a companion. To me, she always seemed to be this really pretty girl whom if I had any guts at all, should have been able to charm with my supposed wit. But coming from the stereotypical species of social outcasts, I tried to look normal and be friendly without breaking a sweat. I needn’t have worried though. Aliens, particularly the shape-shifting variety, don’t judge.

For the first few days, she stuck close by me, listening carefully to every word that came out of my mouth. She watched me eat and learned that was how I derived sustenance and so on. In the beginning, I was obviously a bit intimidated by her. I mean, imagine a lonely writer that doesn’t get much company and all of a sudden there’s this gorgeous….ahem, guest that’s living with him. You’d guess he’d be a little awkward about it at first.

It was hard to remember that Kayla was an alien, especially since she looked very human to me. She was just quiet for the most part, had this weird look about her when she got hungry and stayed glued to the television or my laptop. When agitated, she would promptly fuse those devices and the next morning my neighbors would watch me throw out hideously mutated scraps of previously useful metal and plastic.

If I had known that she was actually learning the English language from me, I would have taken care to use my urbane sections of my vocabulary more often. Or watched better TV. Or read better literature than pulp fiction. I cannot describe the sheer shock when the creature you rescue from a mass of smoke from an extraterrestrial deposit in the middle of the desert starts spouting mixed up slang back to you. For those of you who host pet aliens with language learning capabilities, you might want to sit down somewhere sturdy before you make that discovery. You might not also want to keep liquids, sharp objects or tiny miscellaneous articles in your vicinity. They may not be hazardous to the alien, but they could be hazardous to you.

My thesis advisor chose this time of the year to be a menace again. He’s an astronomy professor, you know? It was because of his assignment that I was stuck in the desert in the first place. But since I was too busy boldly going forth where every thriller hero had been before, I hadn’t collected any data. My publisher was also after me for not having written anything substantial for the past few weeks. If I lost my job at the magazine, I would have to find some other way of supporting my thesis project stipend. I know it’s not glamorous, but you have to take what you get. Besides, you’d think writing science fiction comes easily to a guy who is an astronomer and has a background of physics, right? But with my alien baby-sitting duties, I was at a loss for data and ideas. Hey, if Kayla turned out to actually be hostile, I wouldn’t even be here ranting to you now. Helping her adjust to earth gravity, teaching her the ways of or highly complex society and so on takes more time than you’d think.

Anyway, it’s been a few weeks since she’s been around. We’ve struck this verbal deal, now that she speaks an entirely new dialect of English which I call “Universal Slang”. It involves me being her caretaker in exchange for her telling me stories. Never again do I have to bother about a writer’s block. My thesis is well on it’s way to completion thanks to the funding from my writing assignments. I even have a companion at home that knows all of my jargon well enough to seem natural at it. Everyday, after dinner, she sits down and tells me about her home world. I try to transcribe as much of it as I can, mostly because it takes a while to interpret what she’s actually saying.

The material that Kayla tells me is actually fairly normal. You know, family fights, romances, friendships and so on. Ordinarily, I would just copy her stories as is and hand them in, but then I realize I’m writing for a science fiction magazine and there has to be an element of other-worldliness in it. After I’m done editing the basic English, I add a couple of more tentacles to my favorite characters and they’re good to go.  The magazine is happy, it’s readers are happy, I am happy. I cannot tell if Kayla is, though.

When Kayla talks to me about her world, and I’ve heard a lot of it, believe me, I find it sometimes hard to remember she’s an alien. Most of the interpersonal interactions that she describes with people seem so ordinary. Honestly, if I didn’t tell you she was an alien and that her world was actually different, with a stronger gravity and so on, you could completely picture her talking about her life from some family here on Earth. It turns out they’re a liquid species. The atmospheric pressures on their world is so strong that they have no choice but to exist as one large liquid pool on the surface. When any one of them dies, they join the gaseous layers of the atmosphere. Due to their fluid nature, they are also interconnected mentally, as well as physically. Consider the orange juice on the table. Now imagine if it were alive and not orange. That is Kayla in her native state. Due to some form of telepathic projection people here on earth see her as whatever they think she is. I mean, the forest ranger had a lot of bears in his mind and when he should chance upon a random being in his territory, he naturally assumes it would be a bear. In his mind, Kayla = bear.

Why do I think of her as Kayla?

You’re giving me that look which says I am not describing the entirety of the situation to you, and as my best friend, I do happen to owe you at least that. Yes, she’s pretty. It’s been three years since my last relationship. I like having her around. I’m not going to deny it. Don’t smirk like there’s something going on. It’s not what you’re thinking. I don’t know why I thought having a pretty female companion in the middle of a star-watch assignment was a good idea. But it turns out, that’s  what I was thinking about because that’s the form Kayla manifests in around me. Nobody really knows what her true form is, though. For all I know, when I’m not looking at her she’s merely a puddle on the floor. It’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. I can’t really tell what state she is in until I look at her.

To be honest though, I don’t know what I feel about her. I mean, eventually she will run out of stories. I don’t know how to explain to her that I don’t mind having her around even when she’s not being useful. Also, I’m pretty sure she misses her own home from time to time. But it’s just not safe! What if a cop sees her as a criminal or something? I can’t take her back to the desert and hope that she somehow manages to evaporate herself into outer space. There was also this weird incident last week when a group of these teenagers from the nearby high school were playing around with her in the super market. I mean, to them Kayla instantly adopted the physical form of what that they had in their minds. They’re raging on hormones, so you can guess what the general tenor of Kayla’s impressions were. They got pretty obscene about it, though. But the incident proved that I can’t possible let Kayla out in public by herself.

I’m overreacting?! Of course I’m not!

Okay. Okay. Okay. I may have inadvertently allowed a molecule of jealousy to form inside me. A molecule, not any more. Stop gloating at me like you knew this was coming. You asked for this, that’s why you’re here. Look, this speculation is pointless anyway. We both know that if, hypothetically, there was anything between us it would still be one-sided. What could possibly come out of it? Eventually, I’m sure Kayla’s parent pool is going to want their puddle back. Besides it’s not like she knows what love is all about. She did describe similar concepts on her world, but they’re basically between liquids of their own kind. She’s learned how to hug, purely as a platonic gesture. She tries to attempt it sometimes on me, on the days I don’t yell at her for making my phone and my tablet conjoined twins. Yeah, it’s cute in a way. But she’s probably never going to think of me in that way. She may look pretty and be nice to me, but I still don’t know what her standards are, let alone whether they even have romantic liaisons.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to stop now.

I have to finish a few more stories for the night, so I’ll probably be staying up even after you leave. Usually, they’re very spaced out assignments, but I’m going to the other Observatory next week, with my fellow researchers and with Kayla. They don’t know she’s coming. She’s asked me to send out a high frequency burst from the communications array. It’s supposed to serve a message to her people that she wants to go back home now. I’ll get over it, eventually I guess. It’s probably just a minor infatuation and there’s really nothing to it. I don’t even know her true form, you know? She’s just appearing to me as I think she would….

 A week later:

I’m sorry this is so rushed and I barely have time to explain it all. But Kayla left  yesterday and I just needed to be able to tell someone without being convicted. I didn’t know how the arrangement was, because Kayla said her puddles would not appreciate me messing in on them. When I woke up, she was just gone. There was no more of her voice, of wondering if my gadgets were okay, of reviewing any more story drafts. I just feel empty. Everything just felt empty. I’m feeling a bit angry with myself, because I shouldn’t be feeling so debilitated without her. Strangely enough, I actually miss her half-botched concoctions of swear words now. No, I don’t have abandonment issues. I can assure you with as much certainty as possible that this emptiness is just a momentary feeling and it will perhaps pass. Or not. Granted that I am an idiot over her, especially to even think I could have her with me forever, but you know I can’t help it.

I’m trying to focus on the Observatory’s telescopes, being actually productive for a change without having anyone else’s assistance in the matter, anyone else being the non-human…..forget it. Anyone else being Kayla here.

Someone seems to have tampered with the usual co-ordinates the telescope is targeted to. We’re watching a completely different part of space, now. I can’t help but think this is some sort of Kayla’s doing. It would be just her style. For all we know she could be leading me to her home. We did manage to locate a huge gas giant in that area. Highly dense atmosphere, rapidly oxidizing. The pressure forces some of the layers to liquid after a while. We’re observing this planet hoping to find some way to understand the nature of it’s crust. The others are assuming that the random motion of the liquid currents are caused by the heavy storms. I’m hoping it’s because Kayla’s pool is happy to have her back.

You know what she did right before she left me. She kissed me. I didn’t even know she could do that. When I asked her why, it turns out she was just following the behavior I had secretly expected of her inside my head. I will never be able to tell if she was pleasing me by nature or just choosing to be that way. But I do know this. I have the story of a lifetime and I’m going to miss her.