“Papa and the Steam Rifle”



Papa and the Steam Rifle

Suzanne Church and Stephen Kotowych


Papa promised to design and build me a steam rifle for my eleventh birthday. One that would fire straighter and farther than the gunpowder rifles my friends received for their eleventh birthdays. 

“You will carry the best possible weapon in your hands.”

I smiled up at him. “Merci, Papa.”

“My Georges deserves the best, the moment he becomes a man, oui?”

Oui, Papa.”

“Since the English attacked us over the Montréal Question, all able men must be prepared.”

I nodded, but kept my fears to myself. I was less enthusiastic than my older brother, Rollan, to go to war. News of the Question had spread to our corner of Quebec. The airship factories in Quebec’s largest city had joined the underground revolution, secretly shipping parts to the United Kingdom’s great enemy, the German-Boer Alliance. 

While the Anglos in Canada welcomed the United Kingdom’s fight against the Alliance, we Quebecois felt only sympathy for them in their struggle against Queen Victoria and the forces of her empire. Once the Dominion of Canada’s answer to the Montréal Question became clear—our troops massed on the Ontario border, Her Majesty’s Navy blockading le Fleuve Saint-Laurent and staged troops in New Brunswick for invasion—partisan groups soon sprang up to defend us, declaring alliance with the German-Boers, and demanding a Quebec free from the self-centered English-speaking conservatives.

The Anglos in Montréal fled west to Ottawa, or south to Vermont as refugees, fearing reprisals and the inevitable bombardment by the Royal Navy.

The previous Saturday afternoon, I witnessed Papa’s first test of my rifle. The bullet shot out of the barrel in a spectacular explosion of steam and lead. I stood with my mouth open and Papa took the Lord’s name in vain. In a good way, of course, he dared not incur Maman’s wrath.

The re-charge cycle took slightly more than two seconds, but I could fire up to twelve times before the pressure dropped too low for the gun to function. So many rabbits and foxes would come home as meat because of the quality of my weapon. Like Papa, I would bring food to our table. My steam rifle would keep us fed, as men were meant to do.

Venez ici,” Maman shouted from the front porch. “Dinner, Georges.” Then she coughed. And coughed.

I wished that she wouldn’t yell. Too many times she struggled to find her breath afterwards.

Oui, Maman,” I shouted, hurrying to her side, and offering my handkerchief. She smiled and waved her own, which was always stained with her blood, no matter how many times she washed it in the large pot on the stove.

“Papa?” she managed to ask between coughs.

“He’s almost done for today. The rifle is nearly finished.”

She shook her head, but said no more. So many women scoffed at guns, as though men treated them as toys rather than tools. How else did she expect our family to eat?

Papa washed up, sat at the table, and Maman spoke her thanks to God.

We all looked up, and Papa said, “I’ve a mind to make a steam hand-pistol as well.”

“No!” Maman’s eyes blazed. “The boy is too young for such nonsense.”

“Not for Georges.” Papa devoured a huge mouthful of stew before he continued. “For Rollan. The design is nearly identical, save for the barrel’s length.”

Maman made the sign of the cross. “Rollan, bless his soul, must have no more excuses to die.”

“The British rushed to land their ships in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,” said Papa. “They made a huge error. If our forces don’t dispatch them by Christmas, then les patriotes will bring airships from Montreal to finish them before Rollan is truly in peril.”

“Unless the Americans choose a side.” Maman coughed again and said no more.

I stared at Rollan’s empty chair, amazed at the changes to our dinner table since he’d left us.

Rollan wouldn’t be eighteen for three more weeks, but that was old enough for les patriotes, who enrolled him in basic instruction without a second thought. That way, he could join his compatriots on the train to New Brunswick on his birthday.

Maman noticed me staring at Rollan’s place, and said, “We all miss your brother. But God will watch over him.” She made the sign of the cross again and whispered a prayer.

She hadn’t been well these past weeks, so she’d missed the honor of sewing Madame Moussa’s party dress for the November festival. It was strange, seeing her at the dinner table without her stitching an arm’s length away. Madame had engaged the services of Maman’s rival seamstress, Agathe Travail, instead. We would miss the pennies. And our thin stew tonight spoke the truth of our misfortune.

Agathe’s son, Francois, was in my grade, his birthday the same day as my own. His father had already purchased a gunpowder rifle for Francois, and he’d brought it to the schoolhouse, two days before, hidden inside his long wool coat, to show it off behind the coal shed before our teacher rang the morning bell.

Francois’s rifle fired true, but the calibration was a little off and he was forced to repeatedly re-adjust his targeting. I would spend more time picking up the rabbits I’d hit than I would adjusting my aim. After Papa finished tinkering with the trigger action, of course. He didn’t want me blowing off a finger because the design had been rushed.

“My steam rifle is more precise,” I’d boasted to Francois that morning.

My friend had shaken his head, and said, “The tanks for steam guns are noisy and heavy.”

“But the weapons are more accurate.”

“They’re cumbersome and unreliable.”

“No, they aren’t.”

“Then why don’t les patriotes use them? Such weapons could give us the edge against the British Empire and their Anglo supporters here.”

Such questions had been debated in our household many an evening before Rollan left. The smoke from the tiny steam engine could give away one’s location, if one was trying to hide from attack, Rollan argued. Yes, but the engine need only be engaged once the steam reservoir emptied, my father would counter. The whistling was loud but so was the explosion from any gunpowder rifle, I offered once, earning a smile and tousle of my hair from Papa.

So many times, I’d wished I’d paid more attention to Papa’s explanations about his steam micro-engine’s design. It seemed near impossible to produce steam in such a tiny chamber, and store it under enough pressure to shoot a bullet out the barrel. And yet Papa could manipulate the tiny parts, assembling them in the right fashion with care and love.

Perhaps his love was the underlying reason why the guns could not be produced in large numbers. Too many men would rush the job, and then, of course, fingers would be lost. Or worse.

My papa was a genius. I licked the stew drippings from my plate, wiped my mouth, and defended his work. “Both Rollan and I will be invincible with our new weapons at hand.”

“Unstoppable, at best,” Maman corrected. “None of us are invincible. We all die, don’t we?” She coughed after that, so hard and for so long that her handkerchief was soaked with her blood.

“Rest, Maman,” I told her, nudging at her elbow in the manner that made her smile. I relished her joy, especially as her health deteriorated. The thought of losing my mother made my throat close and my heart ache.

I felt close to crying, but men didn’t cry. I had only days until I became one.

Maman’s cough would never improve. One of her last wishes was for the town elders to hurry and build a Catholic Church in Mégantic, so she might be put to rest in consecrated soil. Our small town, south of Québec City, had only been founded fifteen years previously, when the CP and QC Railway junctions were completed, connecting us to Montréal and Saint John.

Maman coughed once more, bringing my attention back to our table. Papa was staring at her with more worry than he normally displayed. 

He said, “Georges, your steam rifle will be ready on Sunday for your birthday.”

“No.” Maman spoke the word quietly but with such intensity that Papa and I bit our lips. “No gun worship in the house on the Sabbath.” Again she made the sign of the cross, but said no more.

“Saturday evening, then,” said Papa. “I’ll take you to the woods myself and we’ll catch Sunday’s dinner.”

Maman smiled at the promise. Papa and I tried to contain our enthusiasm.

Dinner was turnip and squirrel pie, so light on the squirrel that it tasted sour. Or perhaps it was the flour that Maman had used to fashion the crust. Rats had gnawed and soiled our last sack of flour, down in the cellar where Papa kept Grand-Père’s locker and Maman stored her baubles for church, if she was ever able to attend a proper Mass again and resume taking regular communion.

I finished my serving and asked for seconds, knowing we might not eat again until I caught a meal. Maman showed no pleasure at my eagerness to eat, no doubt dreading my upcoming gift.

Sure enough, Papa finished his meal, excused himself, and headed out to his work shed. When he returned, he held my steam rifle in his hands, cradled inside a soft, brown cloth.

“Here she is. Joyeux anniversaire, Georges.”

Beaucoup de joie, sincère,” said Maman.

I reached out and with my heart pounding, took the steam rifle and the cleaning cloth into my hands, stroking the cloth along the barrel. “Merci beaucoup!” I could hardly contain my eagerness as I added, “Can we head out to the woods, Papa?”

He said, “Now? In the dark?”

I nodded. “We could take our packs, sleep outside. My first hunting trip. So that we might celebrate from the earliest moment of my birthday.”

Papa looked to Maman and they exchanged glances I couldn’t decipher. Finally Papa smiled and said, “Oui. A hunting expedition. But we’re to return as soon as we have enough meat for our feast. I don’t want to leave Maman for too long.”

Before either parent could change their minds, I hurried to my bed-corner to pack a roll with supplies for a night in the woods. The air felt damp with rain, and the ground was still a mixture of the green of fall grasses and the oranges, reds, and browns of autumn’s fallen leaves.

“We’ll head to the shores of Lac Mégantic,” Papa told us both. Then I heard him whisper words to Maman. Hiding in the shadows, I watched them embrace. In our small home, privacy was difficult to find, but I gave my parents what I could.

When Papa and I were ready, we headed out the door, him with his gunpowder rifle and me with my new steam one. 

The moon was low and about half-to-full, giving us enough light to walk with. My roll was heavy and burdensome, but I barely noticed, so excited to be on the cusp of my transition to adulthood. I wondered if Rollan had felt this way when he and Papa had celebrated his eleventh birthday. Rollan possessed Maman’s pious disposition and tended to keep his feelings close to his chest. I wondered what he and his fellow partisans-in-training were doing this night. 

Was he holding his own rifle tight to his chest like a lover? Did soldiers sleep outdoors or only in their hideaways? He had only sent us one letter so far and the details had been frustratingly brief:

October 20, 1899.

Soon, the New Brunswick front. I’m healthy, perhaps more than I’ve been since the summer I worked at the mill with you, Papa. They push us all hard, through the days and sometimes the nights as well. Soldiering requires a fit body and mind. Although there has been no mention of the health of our souls, Maman. I pray for you all each night.

Love and prayers, 

Rollan.

I wondered if there would still be a war when I turned eighteen. But such ponderings were dangerous, taunting the darkness of hell with the un-Christian allure of battle.Papa reminded me of the hunting rules as we walked. We must wait until we were safely beyond town limits, stick to lands without fences, and always say a Hail Mary before pulling the trigger so the soul of the animal was welcomed into His kingdom. The last rule was a sign of Papa’s love for Maman and her devotion. Papa’s parents had been more grounded, the first of their families to work at the mill and not count on farming to feed their kin.

Grand-Père, like Papa, had been so smart-minded that he tinkered and experimented when he could make the time. All of his best inventions, though, had been of little use in a logging town like Mégantic, so they remained in his trunk in our cellar. 

My mind could not stop racing, from rule to rule, story to story, Rollan to Maman to Grand-Père and back to Papa. Then my nose caught the smell of open water.

“We’re close?” I asked quietly.

Papa nodded. “We must stop speaking now, Georges. So as not to scare our prey.”

I nodded, hoisting my rifle a little higher in my grip.

We moved through a heavily forested patch, the brambles catching at our trousers, and then Papa held me back, pointing at his lips to shush me.

Up ahead, we could hear activity. A great deal more commotion than a herd of deer or warren of rabbits could produce. Papa motioned for me to crouch down, so I did, following his movements until we came close to the lake’s shoreline.

Soldiers! Hundreds of them.

I scanned their camp, eager to find a sign of Rollan, in case we’d stumbled upon one of his training exercises.

Except that my brother was miles and miles away.

Papa grabbed my arm tightly, pulling me back the way we’d come. When we’d reached the thick woods once more, we dodged this way, and that, always staying low.

Then Papa found an overhang of granite that created a small cave-like enclosure from the elements. He gestured for me to wait while he checked for trouble within. When he returned, he pulled me inside, signaled for me to set down my pack, and then spoke in hushed tones.

“Americans,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“Their uniforms. The symbols on their sleeves are not Dominion or of the Empire.”

“How could they be here?” I asked. “So far from the New Brunswick border?”

“I think the Americans have finally chosen sides, and I fear it makes them more foe than friend. War has come to our doorstep.”

My eyes opened wide with shock. Our townsmen would be caught in the middle and our soldiers were too far away to help us.

Papa said, “Did you see their airship?”

I shook my head.

“It was well hidden; the air-sacks partly packed away so that they looked like mounds of cloth. But the gondola was too distinctive to miss.” 

Papa reached out his hands, and gestured for my steam rifle. “Its range and aim is superior to my own,” he explained. “I will only fire if I must. You have my word, Georges.”

“Can I come?”

“No. It’s too dangerous. You wait here.”

“I don’t want to wait.”

“Young men listen to their fathers. They don’t squabble like immature boys. And you’re a young man now, Georges.”

Understanding my responsibility for the first time, I nodded.

Papa patted my head and said, “I’ll learn more and then come back for you.” He kissed both my cheeks, in the same manner he’d used to say goodbye to Rollan on his soldiering journey. 

I waited in that small cavern, holding the gunpowder rifle close to me, wondering if I would ever see my brother or Papa again. The thought of their deaths was too much to bear.

Thrusting my bedroll over my shoulder, I hurried out of the cave. The mud held Papa’s footprints well and with the assistance of the half-moon’s light I was able to pick and find my way.

Up ahead I heard grunts and a commotion. Abandoning caution, I raced through the woods and caught sight of Papa and a soldier battling to take control of my steam rifle. The soldier knocked Papa to the ground and grabbed hold of the steam rifle, but before the frightful man took two steps I dove at him, my whittling knife in hand. With a desperate slash I raked the back of his leg, cutting through his pants and into flesh.

The man screamed and turned, but Papa was quick. He shoved the man to the dirt, covered the soldier’s mouth to keep him quiet, and then said, “Georges. Look away.”

I had already defied my father once and could not do so again. I turned my back and listened to the sound of the struggle. 

Papa said, “It’s safe now, Georges.”

I turned and looked at the man. His slashed throat oozed his red lifeblood, painting red-brown into the fallen leaves and mud. I reached for the steam rifle but Papa snatched it first.

“We must hurry,” he said. “Before this scout is missed.” Blood stained Papa’s left sleeve and dripped from his fingers. 

“You’re hurt,” I said.

“It’s not bad. Maman will sew it later.”

“I’m scared, Papa.”

Moi, aussi.”

We hurried back toward Mégantic, taking a different route, closer to the railroad tracks. Papa explained that we should watch for trains. Make sure one of them wasn’t full of the enemy, ready to overrun our town.

Mégantic was so small. A fraction of the size of places like Québec City or Montréal. What could our community’s men do to ward off an advancing army?

Papa and I said little on our hurried trek. No trains came and soon we were back in Mégantic, close to the station and the local inn.

I followed Papa inside and listened while he told the drinking men about what he’d seen. Too many of the patrons had not seemed surprised, as though they’d also stumbled across the troops at the lake. Many hurried out to take up arms against the enemy. The ones who remained lifted their tankards and laughed. Men like them—hard-muscled lumberjacks and rail-men—mistrusted the words of thinkers like Papa.

Finished with our warning, we rushed home. I flew through the front door, shouting for Maman, words streaming out of me about the soldiers, the airship, and my heroism in the face of danger. I wondered why she wasn’t sewing at the table.

Nor did she hurry from her bed to meet me by the hearth.

“Maman?” I called.

No answer.

I considered rushing to the shed, but she would never venture out there when Papa wasn’t home.

“Maman?”

I ran to her room, and then my bed-corner but she was nowhere inside our home.

Then I saw blood droplets. Near the front door and on the handle.

I ran outside and found another trail of blood, this one leading towards the privé. Papa must’ve seen it, too, because I could hear his voice coming from that direction.

“Papa?”

He emerged into the light from the house, Maman limp in his arms.

“Clear the table, Georges.”

I hurried to do as he asked. Papa gently placed her on the hard table’s surface, rolling his coat and placing it under her head. I reached for her hand and found it cold.

Frigid.

I yanked my hand away. Tears filled my eyes and I managed to ask, “Papa?”

“She’s strong. Très forte.” He pressed his face to hers, kissed her lips, and said, “I can’t lose you, my love.” But I knew. Her hand was too cold. Maman was already lost to heaven. Like my mother and brother so often did, I made the sign of the cross and began to faintly murmur a Hail Mary for her. Then a second.

Papa did not join my litany. Instead, he wept and shrieked, kissing her cold body and begging her to come back to him. His behavior frightened me. 

For hours we mourned Maman in our own ways. I snuck into their bedroom to touch a few of her trinkets–her hairbrush and mirror. Papa would not stop crying and touching her body. I wanted to shout at him to leave the flesh alone, that the heat of the fire had caused her to begin to smell. But even I could not admit that Maman’s body could spoil so.

At dawn, the sounds of airship fans and gunfire drowned out Papa’s wailing, distracting us from our sorrow.

Battles that occur in towns the size of Mégantic don’t last long. We were soon under the control of the American Army, bolstered by men from the New England militia. Papa did not return from the mill on Tuesday, and I was forced to live with François and his family. 

Smart men like Papa could create more technology, better ships and weapons to spread the invasion deeper into Quebec, like Maman’s blood turning her handkerchiefs brown. 

The British and Canadians had expected a fight against poorly trained partisans, not a battle against professional soldiers. They were totally unprepared. After a month of fierce fighting between the American invaders and the Dominion and British troops, much of Quebec and the whole of the Maritimes fell to the Americans.

They had come to restore stability, claimed the new military governor of Québec. They had come to protect life and liberty from the British invaders, he explained from amid the still-smoldering ruins of Montréal.

But the Americans showed no sign that they would leave us to our own devices.  

The British would be back, the Americans said; the situation was too unstable for them to leave. The military bases they began to build were for our protection, as was the call for martial law.

Everyone I knew whispered how the Americans had pounced on our rebellion as an excuse to gain control of the St. Lawrence and perhaps to finally annex the whole Dominion of Canada.

A package arrived at school one day, addressed to me. Rollan had been killed along the New Brunswick front and someone had sent me his personal items. The most precious was the crucifix mother had given him, so that their God might protect him from a bullet. I wore his crucifix from that day forward. Not because I had suddenly grown closer to Maman and Rollan’s God, but because I loved and missed them both so much.

I poured all my faith into my clever and resourceful father. He would make more steam rifles. And pistols. Whatever uses he could think up for steam that seemed to help the invaders. But I knew him. He would build falsities that would cut off fingers or blind men with backfires.

My faith was firmly enmeshed in my belief that one day, one of Papa’s steam inventions would allow him to escape and find his way back to me. In the meantime, I shall devote my attention to my studies so I might create a steam masterpiece of my own.

Between them, Suzanne Church and Stephen Kotowych have a Writers of the Future grand prize win, Spain’s Ictineu Prize, and an Aurora Award for short fiction, Canada’s top SF prize. As individuals they have published dozens of stories in venues like Clarkesworld, Interzone,OnSpec, Intergalactic Medicine Show, numerous anthologies, and had work translated into a dozen languages. They both live in Canada.


“Wireheads”



Wireheads”

Michael W. Clark


“It’s not fair.” Broad Back was from Earth. He liked sunrises. Even though it was officially morning, he couldn’t tell if it was morning or dusk on the Second Grade. The space platform was stationary. The sun was always in the same place. Hot on one side, cold on the other. It was a procedure to generate electricity, the heat gradient. Of course, most of that power was used for the artificial gravity (AG) generators. But the AG wouldn’t be necessary if they just spun the platform. Keeping it properly spinning would require 10% of the power needed for the AG. The spin wasn’t done because the leaders of the platform didn’t like the stars moving in circles. The citizens called the platform “the Second Grade” because the leaders acted like second grade schoolteachers to everyone. The leaders clearly didn’t care; the citizens weren’t really anything more than staff to the leaders. They were under paid because of a lack of respect. The Second Grade’s main revenue generator (RG) was teenager rehabilitation. It was why Broad Back was on a station without a sunrise or sunset.

Broad Back was one of those teenagers in need of rehabilitation. Of course, he hated the place. “The sun is always right there.” He pointed at the sun. The platform’s dome components filtered the light and radiation, so it was at the proper level for most humans. The Second Grade was further away from the sun than the Earth, so Sol was much smaller than he was used to. The AG on the platform was set at 0.75 G. Clients from Earth were fitted with a belt that augmented the platform gravity to 1 G immediately around them. There were no superpowers on the Second Grade. Only the leaders had power on the Second Grade. The diurnal cycle of day and night was maintained though by a migration from one side of the platform to the other. The Second Grade was riddled with routine. Routine was part of the rehabilitation. Broad Back walked with the other clients. Walking everywhere was part of the routine. Broad Back scratched at the back of his neck. “Hate this too.”

“Scratch not.” Phalyn whispered. “Implants are expensive. To replace is extra fee.” Phalyn was no Earther. It showed in her physique. She was born in microgravity. Her belt augmentation reduced gravity further. Everyone had a right to their own gravity. It was written in the contract.

“Gov pays. What would caring matter?” Broad Back didn’t put a tone in his voice. They were monitored every moment. A harsh tone was demerit worthy.

“The family. The family balance sheet. The Gov will reconcile.” Phalyn’s tone was always moderate. Her volume always low. In a space craft, quiet was the only privacy available. Where she was from, all citizens were quiet.

Binky was a smartass. He was proud of it. “Why bother with Earth geography? If it will just change?” He smiled at the teacher. The other client-students remained quiet. They didn’t think they were smart and none wanted to be an ass.

“Over millions of years, yes. You are correct, but that is not relevant to this class, or the question I asked.” The teacher reached over to the sky board class rooster. She pushed the red button beside Binky’s picture. “You know the rules. You know the consequences. A demerit is appropriate.”

Binky’s smile evaporated. He started to cry. The teacher scanned the class; the client students looked at their desktops and nothing else.

After dinner, there was a free period lounge. The lounge was large. There was popcorn, salted with no butter. There were videos of all kinds. There were video games. All covered by their tuition. The video games were unused by the most recent client students. Broad Back, Phalyn, and Binky watched a CGI animation that was on when they sat down. It was full of action, loud and brightly colored with little dialogue. Each animated situation lasted less than ten minutes. It was attention span appropriate. It was in the contract too. Binky laughed at all of it, Broad Back only once and a while, but Phalyn never laughed. She just ate the popcorn. There was no amusing food where she came from. Food was rationed. Food added mass. Food used fuel. Fuel was rationed too.

With the sounding of the bell, they all walked back to the dark section of the platform where their beds were. Broad Back wanted to rub his neck where the implant was, but what happened to Binky made him reconsider such behavior. Phalyn had been correct this morning: it was against the rules. In their beds, supine was the only position. On the ceiling above, written in the appropriate language, was “Sweet Dreams!” It was there even when the lights were out. And then, there was bliss. It was like floating in a warm bath. It was like eating too much but not feeling full. It was like a touch by your mother. A long touch. It was disorienting. Even though Binky started to cry, Broad Back remained with bliss. As did Phalyn. Demerits reduced the duration of the bliss event. It was one of the rules. Bliss was rationed here.

The teacher pointed at Broad Back. “Where are you from?”

Broad Back blinked. His face reddened. “An Earth dome.”

“On which continent?” The teacher didn’t smile. The classroom A/C moved her hair slightly.

“The Americas.” Broad Back was concerned about getting a demerit so he answered immediately and briefly.

“North or South?”

Broad Back frowned at his answer. “North.”

“Which dome?”

“Southwest dome.” Broad Back was breathing heavier.

“Good. What did you do there?”

Broad Back blinked back a tear. He wasn’t sure what was happening. “I watched the weather most of the time. I liked the sleet the best. The way it crashed on the dome. I could hear the thumps.”

“Did you ever wonder what made sleet differ from rain?” Still no smile on the teacher, but no frown, either.

Broad Back almost cried. “No. Both fell from the sky.”

“Both are water.” The teacher nodded. “Not curious about what makes them act differently or about the Earth weather? The constant storms. The Gore – Schmitt Ice age?”

Broad Back shook his head.

“But you have heard of it?” The teacher was beginning to smile.

Broad Back swallowed while nodding.

“Have you heard of Dopamine Deficiency Syndrome?” She raised her eyebrows.

Broad Back nodded again. “DDS. Yes. The reason I am here.”

The teacher smiled. “Yes. Yes. It is why you are not curious. Did you ever wonder why you were not curious?”

Broad Back looked around the classroom. None of the student–clients were doing anything other than looking at the desk’s top. He swallowed. “Curious about not being curious?” He knew it would generate a demerit. He closed his eyes.

“Very good. Very good. To my point, exactly.” She smiled and clicked her tongue.

Broad Back opened his eyes, slowly. “I, it, was relevant?”

“Yes. Exactly relevant. Very appropriate. You see class, questions related to the topic are what we desire.” She waved her hands in the air before the bell rang. “Class dismissed.”

The student–clients were slow to respond. The teacher had never smiled before. Class had never gotten out early before. It was confusing. Confusion made them all hesitate. But when the teacher left the classroom, they all thought it was appropriate for them to leave too. Also, the bell had just rung.

Binky was annoyed, so annoyed. “I ask a question, demerit. You ask a question, reward. I don’t get it.” He was keeping his voice down, so the tone didn’t matter.

Broad Back shrugged. “Me neither.”

“Teacher’s pet.” Binky muttered.

Phalyn ate the popcorn. She even crunched quietly. “Relevance. She said relevance.”

“Not the questioning, but the question?” Broad Back looked at the monitors in the lounge. They were functional and functioning.

Binky went to turn something over, but he knew the monitors were monitoring. “I didn’t want to come here.”

“No one asked me.” Broad Back turned to Phalyn. “Anyone ask you?” Phalyn shook her head. “I was told on the way here it was for the good of humanity.”

“What does that mean?” Binky rolled his eyes. “Was that relevant enough?” Binky stared at one of the monitor cams. It didn’t reply. It never did.

“Curiosity required.” Phalyn said with a mouthful of popcorn. “Relevant curiosity.”

“It is stupid.” Binky burst out. Two of the monitors cams turned to focus on Binky. Now, there were three. Binky started to cry. Broad Back and Phalyn looked at the CGI dancing in the screen. Another monitor cam focused on Binky. Now, there were four. But to everyone’s surprise, bliss came to everyone this night. No tears necessary.

Broad Back’s mother was crying. She sat where he usually sat and watched the weather. She was too upset for the weather. She had never left the Earth. She had never left North America. Her status and education level kept her in the dome. She ventured out very seldomly because of the severe weather. Her son, Broad Back, though: he was in space now. His status had changed. The Administrator had changed it, not her. She had won the privilege to have a child in a lottery. A year without contraception was the actual prize. Population in the dome had to be controlled. It was by mandatory contraception food additives. She had gained 20 pounds that year. The food seemed to taste better then. She didn’t get pregnant until the last month. She put in an extra effort to get Broad Back. She knew who the father was only by the genetic tests.

She cried for him. He was her goal in life. But now he was in space being cured. She didn’t think he was ill. He just liked to watch the weather.

“The human race needs inventors.” The Administrator had told her.

She had not disagreed. “You want Broad Back to be an inventor?” She had never met anyone who was an inventor. She just knew the dictionary definition.

The Administrator smiled, knowingly. They all gave that same expression to her. She hated it but never said anything to them about it. “We want him to want to be an inventor. Good inventors are very difficult to find.”

“Do they get lost, easily?” She was confused with what was being said. She only understood that they wanted to take Broad Back into space and that she had no power to stop them.

The hated expression came back. “Dopamine Deficiency Syndrome causes a loss in curiosity. No invention without curiosity.”

Again, she didn’t disagree. “Isn’t there a pill?” There were pills for every mood.

“We need relevant and sustainable curiosity.” The Administrator had a different smile. “Treatment is necessary.”

“But I won the Lottery.” She started to cry at that moment and hadn’t stopped since.

“Good luck is a rare item, too.” Back was the hated expression.

So, she spent her free time sitting where he had sat watching the weather. She cried harder when there was sleet. It was his favorite. “But I was told not to ask too many questions and I haven’t. Isn’t asking questions curiosity?” She didn’t understand a great many things. That made her cry, too.

Broad Back was thinking of his mother less and less. He never had a problem with learning the class material. It had been the assignment. He always did the assignments. Phalyn hadn’t had any trouble, either. Binky just did what got him by without punishment. He never asked the right questions but finally they weren’t the wrong questions. He was satisfied with that. Broad Back, though, started to wonder about the gravity augmenter. Even though it could stand up to water without damage, Broad Back started taking his gravity augmenter off when he took a shower. It was the shower water drops. They didn’t look like the ones on Earth. It had to be something with gravity effecting the water. When he took off the device for the first time, he hit the ceiling of the shower. He felt so powerful. It made him laugh to feel that way. The shower was the only time they had privacy so he only experimented with gravity there. He wasn’t sure if it was against the rules, but he was cautious about it. He final asked Phalyn. “Have you taken off your augmenter?”

Phalyn paled. She shook her head. “I would die, I think.”

Broad Back nodded slowly. “Yes, yes. It is not the same. Yes.” Broad Back wasn’t confused. It made sense. “Is there a rule against it?”

Phalyn frowned. “Doesn’t need to be. It is dangerous.”

“So, no punishment likely.” Broad Back smiled.

Phalyn frowned more deeply. “What are you thinking?”

“Why walk if you can fly.” He nodded. “Tomorrow. You will see.” With the bliss sleep came quickly. His excitement didn’t keep him awake.

Broad Back had found the device’s power circuit breaker. He didn’t need to take it off his person, just switch off the power. The next morning, he walked to the light side up to the open area of the central park. Then he switched off his gravity augmenter and jumped high and long. He made it all the way across the park before anyone noticed. Everyone usually looked down. But Broad Back’s yell of glee made everyone look up.

“How did you get over there?” Binky shouted. It was a reasonable neutral question.

Broad Back just leaped back to them. All the student-clients laughed. Laughing was appropriate. Then they all looked at the Administrator for a sign of disapproval. The Administrator didn’t show any negative reaction. Broad Back didn’t wait and leapt to the other side of the park. Broad Back was breathing heavily from excitement more than effort. “What is gravity? I have to find out.” He was surprised at how he felt. He wanted to know how it worked. The artificial gravity and real gravity. The science section wasn’t until the afternoon. It was disappointing.

Broad Back switched the augmenter back on and walked the rest of the way with the other student-clients. They walked in their approved ques but they were noisy now, giggling and yelping for no reason. Broad Back just smiled quietly. He had pushed enough for one day, he thought. An Administrator was standing at the school entrance. She waved at Broad Back to come with her. This action quieted everyone. They all looked back down as they entered the school. Broad Back walked to another building behind the female Administrator. Broad Back could only think, “Blissless night.” But he so enjoyed the leap. It was worth it.

“Where am I?” Broad Back had never been in this section of the Second Grade.

“Excellent!” The older female Administrator snapped. “Such progress.”

The younger male Administrator nodded. “Good question. This module in front of you is the artificial gravity generator.”

Broad Back’s eyes widened. “Really? How does it work?”

The older female Administrator clapped her hands. “It is not a simple answer, but we will be working here with you. Is that something you would enjoy?” She emphasized the last word.

Broad Back smiled. “I certainly would.”

“Excellent!” was said by all.

Phalyn didn’t understand Binky’s anger. She was happy for Broad Back. He was happy so she was happy. “But you don’t care about gravity, do you?” She spoke in low tones. She was afraid of bliss demerits. Binky cared about them too.

“It’s not gravity!” Binky pulled off his augmenter and immediately collapsed. He too was born in microgravity.

“It is.” Phalyn said softly.

Binky turned the augmenter back on and stood up. “Why him and not me? That’s an appropriate question.” Binky was breathing heavily from his anger.

“We don’t define appropriate.” She sighed. She didn’t quite know what was appropriate herself. Binky jumped up at the video game monitor. He pulled at it but it was firmly anchored to the wall. “How does this work?” He yelled. “That’s what you want to hear.” He tried to smash the screen with his fist but only hurt himself. It made him cry. Phalyn started to cry, too. She wanted to go back home. She didn’t care about the treatment. She wanted to be with her family. Binky had no family. It didn’t matter to him. But they both cried in the corners of the lounge. Everyone else had left when Binky got loud. Broad Back wasn’t in this section anymore. He had advanced. Phalyn missed Broad Back too. There were no goodbyes. Broad Back’s leaps had been the last she saw of him. When she asked about him, the reply was hurtful. The Administrator had said. “He has moved ahead. He must be quarantined. So, he won’t be contaminated. His progress must be maintained.” She hadn’t told Binky the last part. He was upset enough.

Broad Back couldn’t sleep the first night. He was so excited about learning the artificial gravity generator. He didn’t care about the bliss. It occurred to him that it was artificial bliss just like the artificial gravity. He touched the relays on his neck and smiled. “How do these work?” He really wanted to know, just to know. It made him laugh. Only much later in the night, when he was getting tired, did he think of Phalyn. “Hope you will complete the treatment ok.” He said to the ceiling. There was nothing written there. Only a three-dimensional projection of the galaxy and its billions of stars. Broad Back watched the stars slowly move and fell asleep.


Call for Submissions: Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Fiction


Call for Submissions: Fiction

The Editorial Collective


The SFRA Review welcomes well-written and carefully edited pieces of short fiction that conform to the following guidelines:

  • Submissions (stories, poetry, drama, etc.) should be no more than 4000 words.
  • Submissions must be original works that have not been previously published; if, for example, a submission has been previously posted on a blog or similar medium, please include a note explaining when and where.
  • Submissions should be clearly recognizable as SFF.
  • Submissions should not be thinly disguised social or political rants.
  • Submissions should be clearly germane to the issue’s topic.
  • Submit Microsoft Word .docx files only. If you are unable to access Word, please use Google Docs.
  • All files must include a brief (100 words or fewer) bio of the author and proper contact information; however, stories can be published under a pseudonym.
  • All stories must be sent as attachments to sfrarev@gmail.com with the subject “Fiction Submission: Autumn 2021”.

Stories will be read and edited by at least two members of the collective. We will be much more likely to reject submissions out of hand than to request revision, though we may do the latter.

The Autumn issue does not have a particular topic, so feel free to submit stories on whatever topic you desire.

Subsequent issues will have different topics which will be revealed in the issues immediately preceding them.


Even If They Leave



Even If They Leave

Lyuben Dilov
Translated by Andy Erbschloe
Edited by Joshua Derke



This story originally appeared in the collection Double Star (1979). It was also published in “Trakia Alamana” in 1978, under the title “Endless Night of Questioning”.

1

Dr. Zentano was undressing when the gong on the front door struck. He looked at his watch—at this hour and without a telephoned notice? He put on his robe, took the pistol from the nightstand drawer, released its safety, and went out into the hallway barefoot. He strode along the wall, careful not to touch it. He stood to the side of the door and slowly opened the peephole, but he couldn’t look through it without exposing his chest. It was an ordinary door, not armored like most of the housing in the palace. They had laughed at him when he once suggested that they put an armored door on his as well. Who would shoot the doctors?

After sensing no noise from outside for a long time, he gained the courage to look. And he unlocked the latches.

“Did I wake you?” Dr. Strauss said. “Pardon me!”

“I was in the bathroom,” Zentano lied. The midnight guest walked straight into the open bedroom.

“Get dressed, they’ll call you. I wanted to exchange a word or two before you get there.”

Zentano cursed softly but immediately took off his robe and grabbed the top shirt off the back of the chair. Dr. Strauss looked uneasily at the bachelor chaos in the bedroom.

“Talk, talk! I was thinking it over a while ago,” Zentano whispered, buttoning the opal buttons on his cuffs.

“Something disturbing is happening. In the course of an hour, I was summoned by three: Melis, Biko, and finally the boss. The generals, as usual, lied. They didn’t tell me exactly what was wrong with them. They were gripped by a fever and they couldn’t sleep, although they obviously hadn’t been to bed at all. They had the feeling that someone was standing next to them, that something was questioning them. I gave them a sedative…”

“Is it their first time?” Zentano interjected contemptuously.

Melis was the adjutant general, and Biko the chief of security. It was normal that they would face such moments since even he, the psychiatrist, couldn’t withstand the fears that were filling the presidential palace; not a palace, but a fortress packed with weapons and fears, as if under a state of siege.

“The boss was more candid, but he wants you to examine him too.”

“What’s with him?” Zentano groaned, leaning over his shoes.

Despite Zentano’s assurances that he had inspected the room for wiretapping devices, the president’s personal physician did not switch to the vocabulary they used in their rare meetings outside the palace. The two were forced to have their own plot against the dictator so they could survive when he fell, because few are those dictators who don’t fall in the end! Once they had both believed in his ideas, and they became members of his party which he himself later disbanded so as not to hinder him in governing the country. Then they regretted it, but it was too late. A personal physician could not resign with impunity to return to private practice. If Zentano, the psychiatrist, in particular, left the palace before his boss, it would be in a “lethal condition,” as they said in their parlance. And it would be caused most cruelly by General Biko’s thugs. In this situation, willingly or not, you become a conspirator.

“Auditory hallucinations of a rather strange type,” Dr. Strauss said. An internist and cardiologist with a rich medical culture, he possessed all the qualities of a luminary in medicine, but he was also nailed to a single patient, like the ancient rowing slaves to their galley. “Some being from another civilization had been interrogating him, asking him awkward questions, and so on.”

Dr. Zentano thought: “The beginning of the end!” Then he thought: “Although, a beginning like this can last monstrously long…” and his smile disappeared.

“Examine him, and let’s think about therapy together tomorrow,” Strauss added.

The psychiatrist understood his insistent gaze. The two had long since realized that they had the power to speed things up in their country, but they were still afraid to use it. They were not sufficiently acquainted with those forces that would claim the inheritance in the palace, and they did not have the necessary connections.

“Will he call me, or what?”

“Go! I told him that if he doesn’t need us tomorrow, we’ll go around eleven o’clock for some new medicines, to accept them personally.”

Zentano approved of his foresight. That exact message was the reason why Dr. Strauss hadn’t called him on the phone—so that Biko’s people wouldn’t hear it.

“Did you tell him about Melis and Biko?”

Strauss smiled for the first time. “Of course not. Why bother him?!” And he asked suddenly with the same insistent look as before, “Did you give them..?”

Zentano waved his index finger in the negative in front of his nose. Such an option had already been discussed. It would be more than foolish to intensify their madness with medication. In that state the three of them would become even more ferocious.

“Go now!” Strauss repeated.

The psychiatrist reengaged the safety on the pistol before putting it in the special holster under his jacket; he was entitled to a weapon. Then he picked up his bag which stood in constant readiness on the nightstand. In the corridor the two parted with only a wave of the hand.

At the door of the presidential apartment, two of Biko’s gorillas with automatic machine guns around their necks stood up sleepily in front of him. Zentano opened his jacket so they could take his pistol. One lazily felt the doctor’s body while the other peered into the medical bag. The other two, forewarned of his arrival, were stretched out in armchairs in the vestibule of the bedroom and they didn’t pay him any attention. Zentano looked at them, trying to remember their faces. Biko was constantly changing the duty assignments in the palace. Zentano took a breath, softened his facial muscles; it was time to be just a doctor.

The president laid the newspaper beside the whiskey bottle. He wasn’t sitting in the huge bed—an imperial style—but in the corner where he received his intimate guests.

The psychiatrist greeted him with restrained dignity. He said, “You shouldn’t have been drinking before I examine you, Mr. President.”

“I don’t think I need you anymore. This is more reassuring,” the president responded, slapping the paper with his palm and shifting in his operetta sleek pajamas. His entire bedroom was jammed with the same sleek splendor. “All everyone writes about is how much the people love their president, how loyal they are to him, and how happy they are under his government.”

Zentano lowered his head, and pulled the stethoscope out of his bag.

“You don’t have any complaints, do you?”

“I’m not interested in politics at the moment, Mr. President.”

“You’re cunning, you devil! I can’t understand why I trust you so much, even though the generals have been driving me to remove you for a while now.”

“Maybe that’s why,” the doctor allowed himself a smile. “Surely, the one who replaces me would no longer be only yours.”

“They must be pulling your soul out to make you talk about me, huh?”

“They’ve never allowed themselves anything reprehensible, Mr. President. I can assure you that they are just as loyal to you as I am. But again, I ask you not to distract me now. A psychiatrist doesn’t listen to noises in the abdomen and chest, but…”

“Is there anything in my mind but politics?” laughed the head of state. “Then what are you getting these headphones for? Strauss already examined me and measured my blood pressure. It’s normal.”

“I need to form my own picture of your general condition at the moment.”

“Forget about that! Sit down and talk! A whiskey?”

Zentano sat across from him but flatly refused the drink. “So, what are we complaining about? Wait with the whiskey, please! After the examination!” “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. But I was just sitting there with nothing wrong, and I suddenly went crazy…” the president said and vigorously shimmied his small body. Apparently, he had already gotten over his fears. “A voice greeted me politely and asked if it could ask me some questions. It described itself as a being from another civilization. It wasn’t possible for it to show itself to me because…I don’t remember what its reasons were, but it assured me of its peaceful intentions…”

“Is this the first time?” the doctor interrupted.

“The first. Just a while ago. So, I talked with it. Then I told it to go to hell.”

“What questions did it ask you?”

“You can’t imagine all the naive and stupid questions! And they’re supposed to be another civilization. It was like it was testing a fifth grader in civics. The social structure of humans, how governance is conducted, how and why I was chosen to govern this nation…”

Dr. Zentano nodded amiably, but from under his half-closed eyelids, he was looking with a sort of distracted calculation at the withered face.

“And what did you say?”

“I told it to go find Machiavelli and read it. Things haven’t changed much.”

“And how did you tell it to go to hell?”

“I told it to get out of my head. And that everything it was asking me about is in books, that there’s a whole heap of professors of legal sciences, interrogate them.”

“Didn’t it ask more intimate questions?”

The president was engrossed in his own memory, his hands waving impulsively.

“After I told it all that, it wanted to ask me some personal questions, how we develop ourselves, humans, and something else I don’t remember, but I told it to go see my wife if it wanted to know something intimate about me.” The president laughed excitedly and added with even greater pleasure, “Although, between us, Doctor, she’s already forgotten my intimacies.”

Zentano didn’t react to the joke. He was already sufficiently immersed in the private life of this small person, who was constantly trying to demonstrate his self-confidence to as many women as possible, since it wasn’t enough to do it before the entire nation.

“So what, the voice is gone, is it?”

“It apologized for the inconvenience and left. It was very kind.”

“So it left right away, you say?” The doctor emphasized his distrust. A hallucination doesn’t leave just from a command, not even a presidential one.

“If it hadn’t asked such idiotic questions, I would have kept it talking. It’s interesting to talk to invisible people, isn’t it?”

His fingers, however, contrary to his words, were drumming something in morse on the glossy tabletop—an antique item, also from someone’s boudoirs.

“And you sensed a presence?”

“Of course. But not in a specific place. There was something there and then it disappeared.”

“After the whiskey?”

“I suppose so,” the head of state admitted, and a shiver ran across his oversized pajamas, like the shiny surface of a lake blown by a low wind. “But I hadn’t been drinking before that.”

The psychiatrist got up, though he had no desire to hear the intimate confessions of this ferocious fellow who regularly unburdened his mind before him in psychoanalytic sessions. The president insisted on them like he did his daily massage, his sports workouts, and the always encouraging predictions of his court fortune teller, because he insisted on ruling over the tormented country for at least another three or four decades.

“Lie down, Mr. President. I have repeatedly permitted myself to advise you and your wife to stop these spiritualistic sessions, to banish your favorite astrologers and fortune tellers…”

“I don’t need to lie down,” the president said in defense of the mysticism that inevitably conquers such people and regimes. “If you know more than they do, tell me now what it is!”

“It is my duty to examine you.”

“And you’ll say it’s nerves, I know that myself. First, tell me what you think!”

Dr. Zentano sat across from him again, smiling professionally.

“There’s nothing to worry about, of course.”

“Of course,” the president mocked him, jumping out of his armchair and stamping the carpet barefoot. “At least, don’t start with the de jour reassurances! It’s alarming!”

The doctor patiently studied the president’s yellowish legs kicking the embroidered oriental slippers away before they stood, then he startled him with a loud and sharp command, “Sit down and put on your slippers!”

The president abruptly interrupted his walk, stared into Zentano’s eyes in surprise, couldn’t stand their hypnotic power, and obediently returned to the couch. He softened, almost collapsing in his pajamas which were all wrinkled. The doctor grabbed his wrist; it was unnecessary, but measuring the pulse calms the patient and gives the doctor time to dig through their knowledge, or if not, to compose it. What to tell him? Auditory hallucinations are associated with very specific diseases from which the president did not suffer. The easiest thing, really, would be to turn him into a writhing worm, like he had on other occasions, with two or three sentences and the even, glassy shimmer of his green eyes. From time to time, the dictator needed to become a remorseful child in front of his doctor who would wash his guilt away after the mischief had been done. Zentano didn’t want to give him any relief tonight, but the president would still insist on an explanation. What to tell him? A psychiatrist is obliged to be able to explain to the patient what they themself do not know, like the coffee reader who sees all in the tiny black mud at the bottom of the cup.

“Mr. President,” he said cautiously, “You’re right. It’s troubling. It really is troubling! But it is only the onset of something that could be easily overcome, as long as it is well understood. This is a natural crisis for men our age,” Zentano delicately grouped himself in, although he was ten years younger. “Don’t take offense, Mr. President, but you and I are already beyond the ascent of life, on its opposite slope. There, the rhythm changes abruptly, and this leads to all sorts of jolts. Let me make it clearer for you: picture it as a hill. We make our way up, happy and out of breath, and we hurry to reach the top and our entire organism is subordinate to the struggle to propel itself towards its goal. It usually doesn’t turn out how we imagined or wanted, but that’s not even the main trouble. Lulled by it, we miss the top without realizing it…” A rather questionable illustration, the psychiatrist told himself, but he had already said it, and everything said must be explained further.

“And so… you see, Excellency, lulled, we fail to stop at the peak, to rest, to look around, to consciously digest what’s been accomplished, to prepare for the bitterness of the future. Instead, we keep the same pace, without rest, continuing on without transition, until one day, shaken up, we realize that we are now going down, not up. And going down is different. There our struggle is not to climb to the end but to hold the momentum of the rush, like shifting gears going downhill so the clutch can hold the car, to serve as a brake. But as I was saying, we are unprepared because no one can teach us  how to make our way across the hill, and we find ourselves surprised and realize with horror that we are no longer in command of our own labors or our own time, that the time ahead of us sucks us in like an abyss, and with ever-growing speed, but down there, Mr. President…” Zentano made a pause, in which he skillfully played the dramatics of the doctor who feels obliged to tell the whole truth to his patient. “Down there, Excellency, at the foot of the slope lies another goal, not our goal, not the one from before. Down there we can see, from afar, our open grave.”

“Hey,” the shiny man snapped. “Is that what you came to talk to me about? Death?”

Zentano squeezed his wrist tightly, calming him with a look.

“I’m answering you, Mr. President, as you should start answering yourself. Otherwise, the questions you heard from that voice will cease to be naive. Besides, they weren’t as naive as you thought. These are all existential questions and they’re frightening precisely because of their apparent naivete. You’ve missed your time for asking them, and now, on the opposite slope, it’s quite natural for someone else to ask them. They’re being asked by the other, which has been dormant inside us all along, while we were deluding ourselves that we knew what we were after, what we were striving for, while we were ascending to the supposedly consciously chosen goal, unlike that one goal we have now, that offends our pride, that makes us equal to everyone else, that we can neither abandon nor circumvent.”

“Enough, I told you,” the president shouted, pulling his arm away from Zentano’s. “I know we’re all going to die. Tell me something concrete! I don’t have time to ask myself stupid questions. Who will govern this country if I sit down now to ask myself how I’m organized and what I live for?”

“I haven’t recommended anything yet,” Dr. Zentano said soberly, and he internally mobilized because his patient wasn’t stupid. “I’m just explaining to you the intimate conditions of advanced age. Freud says: ‘We all know that we will die, but we do not believe it in our subconscious.’ I would add: The subconscious is the animal inside us, so it does not believe; the animal doesn’t know what death is, but it sometimes anticipates it. However, our subconscious is not as dumb as the animal, when it’s scared, it can ask questions…”

“Eh, I’m only fifty-three!” the president said indignantly.

“Exactly! I would say that’s the end point of the crisis. Later, you will stop questioning yourself, reconciliation will come. And you surely wouldn’t be hearing that voice now if you lived someplace else. You’re surging with too much energy to fit in this tiny country where you climbed all the peaks too soon, Mr. President. If you had been born in a powerful and wealthy country, you might have started a war, and you’d still be questing for domination over the continent, over the world. You would aim for the great goal until the end. The larger nations are the active ones; those like us, tiny and poor, are doomed to question themselves and tremble for their own survival.”

The compliment on the excessive energy did its job but prevented the president from catching the hint about trembling and asking questions. He shouted almost enthusiastically, “Smart you are, you devil! That’s it. I just have nowhere to go in this damned country!”

Zentano smiled. His patient called it “my blessed mother” in front of the microphones with the same passion.

“What would you recommend?”

“Stand up so I can examine you!” the doctor ordered again sharply, remorseful for his compliment and for all his dubious scientific nonsense. “Remove your clothes!”

Perhaps out of gratitude, perhaps in anticipation that the exam would immediately tell him where to direct his energy, the president readily took off his pajamas.

“Kneel on the couch, back towards me!”

“Are you going to torture me again?” murmured the little man, who made an entire nation tremble.

“Yes, again,” Dr. Zentano said relentlessly, taking a long, shiny nail out of his pocket. “I need to check the flow of nerve currents.”

In this case, both his answer and the procedure were pointless. A nail or similar spike was used by neurologists to check for skin reactions, but the nerves of the president, who maintained himself with well thought-out diets and a love of sports, were overly strong for his age. But Zentano found in it the possibility for his one small revenge. This nail, which his former neurology professor had jokingly presented to his students as the neurologists’ second major tool (“We’re worse than carpenters, they have a bunch of other tools and we only have a hammer and a nail!”), had come back to his memory when, a few years prior, he’d had to evaluate his colleague from the presidential prison.

The doctor who worked at the prison, where prominent political opponents were held, had asked to be released for health reasons. The president gave Zentano and Strauss the final decision, and they both found their colleague to be an irreparable wreck. The man who had witnessed the monstrous inquisitions in the presidential prison had for years intoxicated his conscience, not only with alcohol but with some of the opiates used to forcibly drive the prisoners insane or to end the agony of their broken bodies. They recommended him for retirement due to illness, and thus unknowingly signed his death sentence. They hadn’t considered that neither the president nor General Biko would leave such a stray witness alive. It was then that Dr. Zentano truly realized that the same thing awaited him as soon as he lost the trust of the dictator.

The same pathetic man who was on the couch now nearly naked, kneeling in front of his own portrait hanging on the wall. Like in front of an icon. The psychiatrist looked in disgust at the fat folds on his back and thighs, the protruding knobs on his shoulders, and the sagging leather pouch on his abdomen. And he slowly poked the nail under his ear, drawing a line all the way down his neck to the end of the shoulder blade. The president groaned and shook.

“Calm down!” Zentano continued to order, but he scratched the president’s thigh with even more pressure, so he jumped.

The lines bled instantly, like a scratch from cat claws.

“All right. Very good! I envy you, Excellency!”

Under the guise of praise, the nail drew more and more ferocious scratches on his back, on his emaciated thighs, on his thin calves, and on his tender, yellow feet. The pain was most intense there, and Zentano repeated it several times. The president was shaking on the couch springs, squealing, howling, but he endured. Zentano stood up abruptly. Unexpectedly, for the first time, he wondered if his high-ranking patient was voluntarily allowing himself to be tortured, wanting to empathize with the torments he had inflicted on his opponents in the basement of the palace, if it gave him the pleasure of the masochist. He wanted to drive the nail somewhere with all his strength, the most effective place would be into that hole between the skull and the neck, but he just threw it in the bag.

“Just as I thought, Mr. President. The voice has nothing to do with your nerves. It’s only that inexhaustible raging energy which doesn’t see itself being utilized enough. Maybe a trip, a romance; but excuse me, a true romance, falling in love, I mean, with a woman, whom you’ve chosen yourself…”

The president laughed briefly, slipping back into his shiny pajamas with visible satisfaction.

“Where would I get such a love, brother? Should I go to the discos to look for a girl? The president is the least free man in this country. But if you come across one that you think I can fall in love with, feel free to bring her here! You know me better than Biko, who brings me all these whores according to his own vulgar taste. And they’re his agents, of course. I don’t even need them, you know, I just enjoy checking on his spies without telling them a word.”

“Unfortunately, the president’s doctor is just as free,” Zentano responded restrainedly. Educated in grace and attention to humanity, he took as a personal insult the vulgar jargon with which the dictator sometimes tried to show himself as democratic, close to the people. And every time, Zentano wondered how it was possible and why this life should allow itself to be saddled by such nothingness.

“Excellency, have another glass of whiskey and go to bed! You don’t need anything else for now. And I’ll think about how, together, we can shut up the mouth whose voice we’re uncomfortable listening to. Allow me to leave now.”

“Thank you, Zentano,” said the president paternally, already clutching the bottle. “You’re a wonderful boy!”

2

The psychiatrist walked the long corridors to his quarters in that unpleasant midnight wakefulness that drives you to ask yourself unpleasant questions. The wonderful boy, Dr. Zentano! At his age, everything wonderful had already gone to hell, but despite being well-read, and though he had just referred to his own age, he continued to deceive himself. He was still soothed by an idea and a belief that the wonderful would return as soon as he managed to escape from this accursed palace where he was imprisoned like the legendary master Daedalus, with his legs broken by the tyrant, in a hopeless labyrinth. And he, like Daedalus, had no choice but to patiently, feather by feather, bind his wings and fly to freedom.

The feathers were the words of his future book. Drawn carefully with stenographic signs incomprehensible to anyone else, they told of the corruption in this palace. With the pleasure of revenge, they depicted the physiological and mental ugliness of the dictator and the people around him. The book was ready and lying in a safe place in the city. He would release it the day after the fall of the regime to buy his freedom. And use it to wipe the stains off his nameplate.

“I’m a doctor,” he repeated to himself every time he exited the bedroom of the president or his hysterical wife, “I have no right to refuse help to anyone, the doctor’s oath obliges me…” He would say the same to the future jurors of the revolutionary tribunal who were invariably waiting for him in the corridor. But the pathos of unvoiced self-defense wouldn’t silence the question that the tribunal would not fail to ask him: “Does the oath oblige you to deprive thousands of people of your competent aid for years, giving it to only two or three monsters?” He made endless speeches in response to this question—in the toilet, before going to sleep, in his dreams.

“And what have you done this time?” Dr. Zentano wondered with his first lonely steps down the hall. “Just look, he turned you into a pimp to look for girls worthy of falling in love with! Or perhaps, possessed by the idea of applying his energy somewhere, he drafts his new reform beside the whiskey bottle. Some of his favorite reforms, which usually sent hundreds of people to prison and stirred up devastation in the country… But doesn’t the old maxim apply here: the worse it is, the better it is? And isn’t it time now to stop denying Strauss your cooperation? True, he’s in a hurry because he hasn’t thought or dared to write his own book, but he enjoys the trust of the generals, and you know how to disable them, how to send them to the hospital longer. Why not lead the anti-regime forces yourself? How long will you wait before Biko cashes your check?”

Zentano reached under his jacket, but his hand immediately let go of the pistol grip, pulling the pen out of his inside pocket. The figure that popped out of the alcove near his apartment was familiar to all his senses. He pointed the pen.

“Hands up!”

“Jorge,” the young woman replied in a whisper. “Go to the lady, immediately.”

“Ugh,” Zentano groaned, reaching for her waist. “I thought you were coming for me, and I was happy to see you.”

“Run! Run to her because she’s flipped again!”

He overcame her resistance and pressed her to him for a second as if seeking support. Then they walked silently to the other wing of the palace. He really was happy to see her. Not that he loved this woman so much; she provided him consolation with her similar destiny.

The first lady, who had gone to great lengths to play the traditional role of muse for all the arts in the country, had abducted this talented artist from the National Theater where she had just begun her career as a set designer. She had given her the title of companion and advisor, but the first lady paid separately for her drawing lessons, which the two of them took together on Zentano’s recommendation. He had prescribed for her to paint as a remedy for her upset nerves. The first lady also paid her companion another salary for the position “Head of Palace Wardrobe and décor,” and, with all this generosity, had bound her to herself in the same chains of slavery as Zentano. She had sent the woman to him as a mistress, almost as an order, probably to secure the only two other people she trusted. Her astrologer was too old to need such attention.

The two had obeyed and impassively entered the embrace of a comfortable, formal love affair (because it protected them from palace intrigue). They were both guarded for a long time until they finally got tired of it, but they still didn’t become completely honest. They were honest with each other in body only, betraying a yearning for warmth, the need for an ally. Otherwise, their lovers’ moments, like the one now, passed almost in silence because neither of them yet knew what and how much the other was reporting to their common masters. The most they allowed themselves was to refer to the masters with epithets, but such small audacities in this country were allowed to artists and doctors.

“You come, too,” Zentano suggested in front of the first lady’s room.

“No. She’s all yours tonight.”

“Did something happen?”

“The usual hysteria.”

“Shall I come see you after?”

“I told you, tomorrow! And she probably won’t leave you any strength for me,” the girl replied, still combative, and slipped into the opposite door where she inhabited a small, artistically furnished apartment.

The first lady greeted him from the bed, curled up in a bun. She shouted, “Jorge, I’m going crazy! If I’m not crazy already.”

He grinned in an exaggerated radiance, “Madam, a Woman who isn’t capable of going crazy from time to time does not deserve this holy name.”

“Jorge, this time it’s serious!” she said, turning over on her back, slipping herself up on the pillow with visible relief at his appearance.

“Of course. Did I ever say it wasn’t serious?”

He always agreed with his patients initially, refuting them only with a demonstrative casualness, which actually did have a reassuring effect on them. And he managed to keep that expression on his face now even though, on the inside, he was still boiling from the sting of the artist. As if to prove her right, and as if taking from the master what her slave had refused him, he sat on the bed and unceremoniously threw back the satin blanket, threatening the slave: “No, darling, when this one here is swept away by the whirlwind, it won’t save you that you were my mistress, your starving colleagues will eat you along with your paintings. Only I can save you, but I will consider it…”

Above the navel, the first lady’s nakedness shined in front of him because her nightgown had twisted around her breasts. He ran a hand over her smooth belly, and her hips were trembling like a tired horse. The thin, faded scars of the cosmetic surgeries which had removed the excess from her abdomen and thighs were also trembling like cobwebs.

“I’m cold!” she moaned.

Zentano’s desire, however, had faded at the sight of the familiar, repeatedly cut nudity.

“Madam, why must a magnificent woman such as yourself resort to medical attention to keep her warm?”

“Jorge, leave the jokes! Something terrible is happening. I started talking to myself. Am I getting old?”

Her question was uttered with all the horror of a truly aging woman.

“Let’s pray that everyone ages like you, darling.” A psychiatrist is obliged to be able to speak gently, even to such thin-lipped and long-nosed faces. He covered her again, affectionately cradling her hands in his. “Is there anything else? Talking to ourselves is not the worst case. After all, who else should a person speak frankly to but themself?”

He almost let slip, “who else in this country,” but the swallowed part didn’t disturb his composure.

She looked around timidly and asked in a whisper, “Don’t you feel a presence? It’s like there’s someone in the bedroom.”

He looked reflectively around the huge, beautifully furnished room. It wasn’t nouveau riche like the presidential bedroom; here was found the skillful imagination of the artist-slave. The first lady didn’t sleep like her husband in imperial and royal styles.

“Ma’am, other than the presence of a heightened sense of civilization, I feel nothing.”

“Exactly!” she said with another bout of trembling, and he laughed, shaking her hands.

“Aren’t you used to it already?”

It was only then she realized that in addition to her furniture, he had in mind the state-of-the-art eavesdropping systems that General Biko had installed in the palace. Whispering, she turned her head on the pillow, “No, no! The voice said just that: another civilization!”

“Wow,” Dr. Zentano was merrily indignant. “Television has been serving up too much science fiction lately! You will have to get that under control, ma’am. Just look, the population has begun to rely not on themselves and their leaders but on foriegn…”

“Jorge,” she interrupted, and he thanked her for her stupidity which allowed him to make sometimes dangerous double entendres. “Do something, Jorge! I want to sleep. I have an important job tomorrow, and I’ll be trash.”

“Even if you sleep all day, you’ll still be trash,” he said her words to himself, but otherwise said with his most good-natured irony, “Madam, I would rather not ask you now what you talked about with this other civilization. These things are too intimate. Do you have a specific desire, something that you feel would help you? Because my opinion is that a valium will do the job.”

Not only the first lady but most of the grandes dames and rich people in this poor country paid dearly and overpaid for their personal psychoanalysts. The former monks-confessors had been reborn in them, and often they weren’t even doctors, just sweet-spoken and quick-witted charlatans. Zentano knew, of course, their enchanting technique, which in some cases did have a psychotherapeutic effect. He was forced to use it so as not to be expelled, but he feared that it might destroy the serious psychiatrist in him. So he usually tried to divert the first lady from the psychoanalytic session, taking the risk that she might want him to lie down next to her. Once every two or three months, she would make him close his eyes and intensely imagine some girl he had once desired so that he could kiss her fishy mouth. That’s what the artist had been hinting at, but her mistress, thank God, preferred the fantasy to the actual male embrace.

He had begun, some years before, to try and get to the root of her strong obsession with fantasizing. He would have her writhe and moan for half an hour in an imaginary love act, and she assumed that she was showing appreciation for the otherwise exhausting psychiatric method in a very stately way because it both relieved her sexual hunger and guarded her from reckless adventures. Thus, thanks to her psychiatrist, she was considered among the population to be a stupid and evil, but otherwise very moral, woman whose name was not associated with any such gossip. And her protégés—artists, writers, actors—could sleep undisturbed.

Zentano had cursed himself for his attempts at that time, and he still regretted it now, seeing her “stateliness” reawakened. She looked around, as if to make sure there were no witnesses, lifted herself, and slid her nightgown over her head in her usual gesture. She pulled off the blanket and lay down in her learned position. There were whitish cobwebs around her chest, as well. Through them, the surgeon-designers had stuffed some of the fat they had removed from her ass to make her breasts as big and hard as an ancient statue.

“You are beautiful, madam,” said Zentano, without looking at her. “One can’t get enough of looking at you. Why must such beauty…”

“Imagery!” she interrupted, taking his words as a self-offering. The psychiatrist swallowed the disgust in his throat. He rubbed his face sluggishly with his hands, rubbed it for a long time, and when he removed them, he met her wide-open eyes. They weren’t, as they usually were, coldly commanding but warmed now by expectation. He carefully stared into them, took her hands again. He didn’t have to do much because she was nearly self-hypnotized by her desire.  The man she needed right now must have been in her brain already. Zentano only had to tell her, “Oh, how you love him! And here he is in your arms, eager and strong, and you both throw yourselves into each other with all your passion. Accept him… accept him… he is inside you and you are inside him… and you are infinitely, infinitely happy…” But even though these words were unnecessary, he sometimes did sincerely feel sorry for her and would involuntarily tell her a few nice words to encourage her imagination towards the more human side of the experience.

He did that now but hastened to turn away from the poor thing who was already squeezing her breasts to blue on behalf of her imaginary lover and tossing her outstretched legs through the air. In the past, every now and then, a little of the voyeur’s vicious pleasure would pop up inside him, but since he was a normal man, in most cases, long after these sessions, he could not desire a woman. That’s why he immediately occupied himself with the illustrated magazine from the nightstand, so as not to hear the dog’s whimper of the first lady who was striving for her lonely orgasm.

And at that moment, a quiet, melodic, almost delightful voice asked him with sweet curiosity, “Excuse me, what is she doing right now? Why is she doing that?”

The magazine fell from his hands, but again the voice brought him out of his stupor, “Do not be afraid, we beg you. She told you we are from another civilization. We want to understand…”

The doctor’s duty held him back long enough to interrupt the first lady’s contranatural love ecstasy with two excessively strong slaps, after which Dr. Zentano simply fled.

3

He set the two latches on the front door, locked the living room door behind him, set the pistol on the drink table with the safety off, and slumped in a nearby armchair. Only then did he realize that he had become ridiculous in his panic. “You’re a psychiatrist, damn you. If Biko has decided to drive his masters crazy with some kind of cheap trick, at least don’t you get taken in by it! Leave the mystical to them, they can’t live without it. But it wasn’t a hallucination, although… Here’s what it was, the two of them had so insistently suggested that it talked… No, no, it was no accident that the generals had played their trick for Strauss first, to prepare everyone!”

He jumped up again and found himself in every corner and cabinet that could be outfitted with listening devices, or “bedbugs” as the European press had once called them. However, producing sound, as far as he knew the technology, required speakers, and they were always bigger than the microphones.

The voice had come from behind him as clearly and authentically as if its owner were in the middle of the living room. The pistol lay loaded on the drink table, but the voice had seemed created to soothe, not to frighten: soft, warm, something between alto and baritone, neither feminine nor masculine, with evenish intonations in its courtesy.

“Do not be afraid, we beg you!” said the voice, while he was in the middle of searching the living room. “We will just ask you about some things. We understand that you are the person who can best explain to us…”

“Where are you talking from?” Zentano hissed, looking around.

“We are here with you. You cannot perceive us because we are a different type of intelligence, structured differently. We want nothing more than to understand your intelligence.”

“If you speak our language, then you know our intelligence too. Language is a manifestation of intelligence.”

The psychiatrist was regaining his composure. After all, a voice posed no direct threat. The living room was locked, the gun close at hand. There was no feeling of anyone’s presence, as the first lady had felt. He forced himself into a natural behavior, but to support it, he needed support himself. He went to the bar, trying to act like he was alone in the living room. He pulled out a bottle of whiskey and a glass. Overly casual, he took ice from the built-in refrigerator, sat down in the armchair next to the pistol, and prepared his drink intently: first the ice, then the whiskey on top to shatter it, then the spritz of soda. Shake, and the heralding, blissful gong of ice and crystal.

The voice seemed to have gone away, embarrassed by Zentano’s objection, but as soon as the glass touched his lips, it spoke, “What is that, and why are you drinking it now?”

“Eh,” the psychiatrist was angered by the idiotic joke. “You were going to ask something about intelligence, weren’t you? I see no intelligence in this. And it’s best to postpone the conversation until tomorrow. It’s too late, I’m sleepy.”

He still believed he was talking to the undiscovered installation of Biko or Melis, or both, but then the voice made a confession that was beyond the capabilities of their agents.

“We still cannot comprehend what is important to you. You said that language is an expression of intelligence. We have studied it relatively well, but it gives us such contradictory information that it prevents us from grasping the motivation for human behavior in most cases. That is why we came to you, to the most prominent humans here. You are surely the smartest and most knowledgeable since you manage the other humans.”

A few large sips of whiskey were already affecting the “motivations for his behavior.” Zentano decided to serve the generals a bit of culture. “An old specialist in social sciences, Montesquieu was his name, said two centuries ago: If people only knew with how little intelligence they’re sometimes governed…”

“Is that true?” the voice asked with unshakable naivete.

“Uh-huh!” the psychiatrist confirmed casually with a glass to his lips.

“But if he said it a long time ago, then they do know it now.”

“They don’t know it.”

“Here is another one of those contradictions we told you about that are preventing us from….”

“Eh,” Zentano again raised his voice menacingly, angry at this silly game, but he restrained himself and decided to keep playing it with the help of his wits. “Has someone sent you to us, or did you decide that we’re the smartest on your own?”

“We realized that we needed to come here.”

“Then you really don’t understand anything about the motivations of human behavior.”

For some reason, the invisible kept talking about itself in the plural, apparently missing the very same wits that Biko’s agents were. “Well, we do understand that you are the specialist in these issues. That is why we will rely mostly on you. So, be so kind…”

This definitely looked like the beginning of an interrogation, and the psychiatrist interrupted it, “Here, you’re wrong again. I’m just a doctor. I can treat five or six abnormal motivations in a person without even being sure if they really are abnormal. If we recognize them as normal, however, our psychiatry would have to close shop, and we don’t want that. Look, I can tell you something more specific about the human structure. So, let’s start: protein is the basis of all life on this planet. It consists…”

“Pardon me,” the voice interrupted in turn with the same even kindness. “The chemistry of life here is already known to us. We want to talk to you about something else. But now you have told us something interesting: you treat illnesses that you claim may not be illnesses. Earlier, for instance, what did you cure those humans from, and why?”

Zentano poured himself another whiskey, took a sip, thinking resignedly that when General Biko brings him before his court in the basement of the palace tomorrow, he will hardly serve him whiskey during the interrogation. And Zentano tried to rehearse how he would behave before him. He knew that no acquittals were issued there, so he had no choice but to preserve at least his dignity. He replied with professional indifference, “From their fears.”

“From their fears,” the voice repeated in a very human voice, as if assimilating the answer. “Is it abnormal for a person to be afraid?”

“There is a natural, useful fear, but this one is harmful.” The psychiatrist would justify himself in the same way, in the other court, after the fall of tyranny. “It damages the nerves, blinds and confuses their minds. This fear makes them cruel and reckless to the people they govern.”

“And what exactly are they afraid of?”

“Of the people they govern.”

“We do not understand. So you are separated by some conflict here? Are you chosen as a doctor by the humans who are governed to protect them from those who govern them? Is that how we understand it?”

The psychiatrist blinked with desperate gaiety at the clumsily disguised trick. “Eh, you really are some cuties! Why don’t you show yourself though? I’m very curious to see you! And it’s impolite of you to be invisible to me in my own home.”

“We have explained this to you. It is not possible for you to perceive us with your senses. Maybe when we study you well, we will find some way for more direct contact, but for now it is impossible, believe us! We are also troubled by this; it bothers us very much that humans are afraid of us. But at least you, as a doctor and a scientist, are trying to accept the situation. Our future relationship with humankind will depend the most on humans like you.”

The doctor laughed, “And you suppose humanity will let you interrogate it like this?”

“But how else can it be studied?!”  The humorless invisibility still didn’t get it. “Our intelligence does not allow us to apply the methods by which you study other beings.” “They must have hired someone from television,” Dr. Zentano thought, “from the scientific-fiction editors. Still, it’s such a trite theme—for some higher civilization to start cutting up people the same way people had cut animals…” He didn’t finish his thought, however, because he had reminded himself of the methods by which they “study” political opponents in the dungeons of the palace. The late prison doctor had described them to him in great detail. The trembling courage of the whiskey in his chest melted like a mirage after the passing of the sun. With the last remnants of it, he said, “Then prove to me somehow that you’re present! Something to show us that we really are talking to the unseen from somewhere. At least pour me a little whiskey!”

Nothing moved in the room. The air remained just as thick and stuffy, but now there did seem to be something in it, as if a presence could be felt. Zentano smiled ironically, both at himself and at his patients. A person can fill up any space with their own imagination, especially when they’re frightened, and they’ve been frantically racking their brain over what explanations can be extracted. He suddenly pulled away from the table, and sank into the back of the armchair.

The bottle had risen smoothly into the air. There, it tilted over and confidently started pouring its contents into the large crystal glass. It filled the glass up by itself, to the brim, and silently returned to its place. No, it wasn’t completely silent. Zentano realized afterwards that he had heard both the gurgling of the liquid and the hollow thud of the bottle’s thick bottom against the wood.

In the altered silence that followed the explosion, he leaned over timidly, extended his index finger to the rim of the glass, and examined it. It was wet. No one would fill up a glass like that without leaving room for ice or soda.

“Hey, I thought I was a good hypnotist,” he laughed almost soundlessly, losing his voice. “Bravo, Bravo!”

But the other voice hadn’t gotten lost, it called out with an unchanged lyric and timbre—not alto, not baritone, not female, not male, “Now allow us to ask you our questions!”

“Let’s wait and see if I can drink what you poured!” The straight whiskey choked him, shattered his esophagus, and it shattered his doubts about being hypnotized. “What do you want from me?” He coughed out his question roughly and then went on coughing.

The voice waited for him to calm down. “To understand humans, nothing more!”

“Then go to the humans!” Zentano screamed and jumped out of the armchair with clenched fists.

“But are you not the best, the most knowledgeable..?”

“We are not.”

“If you have been chosen to lead…”

“Nobody has chosen us! We elected each other. Go somewhere else!”

“Where?”

He slumped back in his armchair, realizing the powerlessness of his threatening outburst before the invisible woman or man. He moaned, “So this is how we’ll be interrogated?”

“We have no other way. Our mission is to describe human civilization,” the voice announced, again with an even courtesy.

“And then?”


Andy Erbschloe is .

Call for Submissions: Fiction



Call for Submissions: Fiction

The Editorial Collective


The SFRA Review welcomes well-written and carefully-edited pieces of short fiction that conform to the following guidelines:

  • Stories (or poetry, drama, etc.) should be no more than 4000 words
  • Submissions must be original work that has not been previously published; if, for example, it has been previously posted on a blog or similar medium, please include a note explaining when and where.
  • Submissions should be clearly recognizable as SFF
  • Submissions should not be thinly-disguised social or political rants
  • Submissions should be clearly germane to the issue’s topic
  • Microsoft World .docx files only. If you are unable to access Word, please use
  • Google Docs.
  • All files must include a brief (<100 word) bio of the author and proper
  • contact information
  • All stories must be sent as attachments to sfrarev@gmail.com with the subject “Fiction Submission: Summer 2021”.

Stories will be read and edited by at least two members of the collective. We will be much more likely to reject submissions out of hand than to request revisions, though we may do the latter.



The Summer issue’s symposium is on Mormonism and SFF, so for the Summer issue we are requesting submissions that are related to one of the following:

  • religion
  • pilgrimage/migration
  • societies/states that are theocratic or otherwise dominated by religion
  • conquest/erasure of Indigenous populations by settler colonialism

Subsequent issues will have different topics: each of these will be revealed in the immediately previous issue.


1761



1761

Tang Fei
Translated by Xueting Christine Ni



A

61

He was fleeing; he slid the SIM out of his phone, snapped it and ground the pieces under his foot before throwing the handset into the westward torrent of the river. Using a mirror in the supermarket bathroom, he cut open the epidermis of his neck and dug out the social security chip. Then into the back of his thigh to find the extrasensory jammer and the low-frequency capillary sanitizers which lay along the arteries. He wrenched them all out, and hurled them all in a bundle through the window and into a passing rubbish truck. Relying on natural instincts, he dived into the maze-like world of the Metro, and found his refuge on a long stretch of disused walkway. 

All of this, I saw. 

I watched him remove everything that could be used to track his location from about his person and throw them away, forming beautiful trajectories against the dusky scarlet clouds of the northern sky.

Like the others, he naively believed that by removing these tracking devices, they would never have to worry about being traced, that they would truly be invisible in this metropolis. Provided there is no incident, I would let them live on in this kind of illusion. 

If several years pass without them harming man or beast, I would remove their names from the watch list. Their illusion would no longer be an illusion. They could lead the ordinary lives they thought they already had.

No one would know they were Neumodded. Like damaged products that have been refurbished in accordance with strict quality control, they would be discretely replaced on the shelf. And I, unbeknownst to the products, am that quality controller.

I watched him dash into a disused suburban subway. It isn’t much safer in DiXia than above. He was very alert, picking his place on an unoccupied platform on the periphery of the station, sleeping in a hidden recess where the tracks join the platform, setting up a fake bed two to three metres away from his actual sleeping place, even setting up simple booby traps: the kind that can be found in encyclopedias, using found tools like rat traps and beer cans. Virtually every moment, this man is taking the highest of precautions. The occasional shadow that strays into his territory, some by accident, others for opportune gain, would invariably trigger his defenses or be frightened away by the flash grenades he’d formulated. Those who choose to live in DiXia, usually don’t want trouble; or I should say, they’d already had a big enough dose to last them a lifetime.

The camouflaged infrared sensor constantly streams images. This is how I watched him making his nest in the darkness. I’ve even begun to admire him. 

He is only a basic Neumodded, having undergone just a small, routine operation. His files state very clearly: slight lowering in sensitivity of the NE/5-HT receptors in the cerebrum.  Among the several hundred monitor screens in the surveillance car, about 60 to 70% of subjects tracked have had that operation. 

Yet he is like no other. 

A born fugitive, he is agile, decisive, cunning and crafty. 

Nearly all Neumodded want to hide the fact they have been modified. But not all of them can confine themselves to a life in DiXia.

It was remarkable, removing every single implant from his body. Even though the Neumodded know that implants would render their location traceable, exposing their movements, very few go through with that. When I saw him come out of the supermarket, his trousers stained with blood, I froze in shock. It is said that before wars were all nuclear, old soldiers would open their wounds up, extract bullets from within, and stitch up the holes, all without the aid of anesthetics. I had never believed those tough guy legends were true, until that instant.

Was it really necessary to go to this length? I have monitored countless Neumodded, yet only this one has chosen the life of a fugitive. It’s as if he’s not only running from his past, running from his Neumodded status, but in doing so, running from humanity and civilization. I’ve started to become attached to him, and perhaps more than a little fascinated. I have to admit, I spend more time on him than on the other subjects, even if it wasn’t that obvious at first. 

Theoretically, I am responsible for several hundred Neumodded. Every monitor in the surveillance car constantly broadcasts their every action: the main computer is programmed to immediately alert the nearest controller or hospital, if there is a problem. In order to prevent the Neumodded from using interference devices or hacking the machine (and someone before had succeeded in doing so), the company employs human controllers to monitor the screens. Controllers select a random subject every hour to follow in forensic detail. 

Things getting out of control were sometimes inevitable, hence the “belts and braces” approach.  It gets tedious. The ways that people run and hide are more or less the same. But I like this job, leaping from one subject’s life to another’s, but watching from the outside, objectively. Until I saw him. 

By the time I became aware of this attachment, it was too late. Every day, I spend over half my time, totally focused on watching him on his screen.  I tried to change my position, but no matter where I am, out of the several hundred screens, my attention would be involuntarily be drawn to his. Even if I intentionally move it away, it would drift back to him before long. 

Oh yes, his number is 17. 

I don’t know his name. 

It’s difficult to work out how he learned all these survival tricks and strategies: setting up snares, using old batteries and junk he found in rubbish to make those flash grenades. He wasn’t born with these skills and had no net tutorials to rely on. His files say that he doesn’t have that background. Through careful observation, and putting these observations into practice, he seems to have acquired the skills that would ensure his survival. There is a kind of process there, but something remains hidden. 

In the beginning, he was dreadful. He woke up from the operation into utter confusion, exhibiting extreme reactions to stimuli, staring malevolently at a passerby. He looked at people with a horror that words could not describe. I have never seen such a gaze from another living thing. A gaze that seemed to pierce through the world of the living, all the way to hell. It was as if he were confronted with tens of thousands of megabytes of information from humanity’s history, his whole face twisted under the weight of all this data. Whenever I replay those clips, I focus the camera to his face, zoom in and zoom in, until those eyes fill the entire screen. Those beautiful brown irises, the molecule-scatter ray penetrating the stroma, shining onto the black pigment and into the pupils. Those mysterious, pitch black pupils. In what distant deeps or soaring skies were those retinas burned so deeply? 

That data is unavailable.

Even if the image is so zoomed in that the pigment inside every cell of the iris is visible, the visuals cannot tell. 

What exactly does he see? Or think he sees?

I want to know. 

The pedestrian he glowered at was startled. I was just about to stun the subject, my finger curling round the trigger—this was the first time I’d had to take extreme safety measures against a Neumodded—but he suddenly leapt up and darted away, half stumbling, half crawling. His escape was pathetic to watch, collapsing into every possible thing he passed. About fifty or sixty metres into his run, he began to recover. I wrote my analysis on the form, my conclusion concurred with that of the mainframe: the Neumodded’s condition was stable. Continue observation. 

Not long after that, he found his hideout in the abandoned metro station, and sank into the world of DiXia, the hole where hoodlums go to disappear. He has adapted very well, for a newcomer. He has no physical prowess, by any account, nor does he have weapons or money, yet he manages to stay out of anyone’s control by his sheer wits. 

Once, deep in the night, he stalked the city’s top eating places, in search for some high-calorie food, rather than the usual left-over junk in discarded paper bags. He came across a leather coat at the entrance of a car park. The coat was huge, not his size, but would make a warm blanket for the winter. Just as he pulled the coat on, a tramp, towering two heads taller appeared behind him. “That’s my leather coat,” he said to 17.

“Oh, and you just happened to lose it?”

“I left it outside the bar, took it off before a fight. The little bastard took a lot of punches.” The big fellow pressed towards him slowly. 

“Outside the bar”? 17 eyed him quickly before stating emphatically, “This coat’s not yours.”

He shifted his gaze to everything he could possibly focus on, avoiding looking directly at the tramp. 

“Kid, you lookin’ for a fight?” His companion was losing patience. 

17 raised his gaze slowly to meet the tramp’s. Instantly his eyes became vacant, his body trembled in pain, but he bore it, or should I say, he seemed to welcome it, as if something had entered his body. He face looked lost: the empty look that one only assumes when one puts all their focus, spirit and energy into one single thing. During the last few playbacks, I grasped the bewilderment and dejection that crossed his face. On the whole, it feels as if this person has shifted away from any dimension where he was physically present. 

The tramp clearly didn’t notice this change, nor did he sense the strange scent of danger emanating from 17. If I were him, I would have. 

To the tramp, 17 was just another luckless vagrant, who looked skinny, weak and way under his weight class. So he made the first move. He took a swipe at 17’s collar. 17 couldn’t dodge it, and he was pulled in close. The tramp was about to rip the coat off his back, but all of a sudden, his arms went limp and fell to his sides.

The tramp started to howl, dropping 17, and collapsing into a heap, both hands shielding his left knee. 

“Bastard, hand that over.” He attempted to snatch something from 17. This time he wasn’t after the jacket, but the humming photon interceptor in 17’s hand.  

17 stepped back to get out of his range.

“How did you know about my knee?” 

Had the vagrant not mentioned it, it would have taken extensive digging for me to find out that he had a bionic actuator. This kind of prosthetic is usually highly stable and wouldn’t normally glitch, unless there was interference on the exact wavelength from a nearby device. Which was precisely what 17 was holding. 

The giant had asked the question I wanted an answer to. How did 17 know his attacker had an actuator in his knee, and happened to have an interceptor set at the same frequency as the actuator? The tramp couldn’t figure it out, but his puzzlement didn’t stop the pain. His huge bulk completely folded up, he begged 17 to switch off the interceptor.

“It only works within 500 metres: look, I’ll test it myself.” 17 glanced at the device in his hand, his expression complex. There a mixture of pride, and concern. I would guess it was his first time using it. “Don’t come any closer.” 

17 backed away at a near run, and once out of range, turned to face his attacker. With the device now deactivated, he carefully approached the tramp who now sat slumped on the ground. His hulking mass was no longer threatening, but 17 still avoided looking at him, a slightly guilty expression passing his face.

He held out his hand to the tramp and mumbled something which the vagrant didn’t seem to hear. 17 was obliged to repeat it, his averted gaze filled with a few more degrees of shyness. “Give me his number.” He yelled. 

The tramp was stupefied. He probably had no idea he’d be counter-robbed. “What number? Whose number?”

17 held up the photon interceptor. “Every DiXia doctor gives their patients a contact number. The one who did your knee would have done the same. Like their patients, unlicensed doctors live a vagrant’s life to avoid constant danger. The contact number lets you put in a request for the doctor’s location at any time. The doctor can consent or decline, according to their circumstances at the time. Apart from this, the number has charging functions, when you top up to a certain amount of money there will be discounts and offers on medical fees. It keeps doctors’ and patients’ fates tied very closely together.”

“He didn’t give me a number, really, he didn’t give me any contact details. I’m telling the truth.”

The big man said that his doctor isn’t on the move, keeping his practice at the same place. He seemed as though he was going to keep the location a secret, but his eyes flicked to the interceptor in 17’s hand, hesitated for a moment, and he made a choice between further suffering and betraying his doctor. 

“You know why I’m asking.” The hint of a smile emerged on 17’s slim face. 

“Yeah.” The big tramp nodded and gave him the address of the underground hospital. 

The next day, 17 found that underground surgery, or at least the address the tramp had given him. It was more of a puzzle than an address: according to the tramp’s spoken instructions, the location was on a overhead walkway on a fly-over in the Port District. There was nothing on the walkway. This area is mainly deserted during the day. 17 stood in the blazing sun, staring at the rust-mottled railings in a daze, feeling a little exposed. He hasn’t been in sunlight for a long time. 

A soft graphene ladder rose up from the base of the walkway, climbing up until it hung on the railing to the right of 17. This was a kind of invitation. 17 stepped over the railings and grabbed hold of the rungs. The ladder slowly retracted, taking 17 into the structure suspended underneath the walkway. Incredible. 

An underground surgery hidden in plain sight, slung below an overhead walkway in a part of town where you never looked up.

The automatic doors close behind 17, almost clipping my sensor. 

“How did you find us?’ An old man emerged from the shadowy depths of the room. 

No, not actually an old man. It’s hard to tell someone’s age from their outward appearance, especially when their face has been operated on. Everything from the elusiveness in his gaze to his crooked gait spelled out “old, an age that connoted “harmless”. 17 lowered his head and gazed at his shoes. 

“A tramp told me.” 

The old man eyed him and detected the trace of embarrassment on his face. 

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“I want a spectrometer scan.” 17 took out a tidy pile of money from his pocket. 

The old man took it. “Of what?” 

“My brain.” 

The main computer was already on red alert. The red light on the top of the surveillance car was flashing urgently, flooding the entire interior of with a glaring red, making it resemble a murder scene. My blood pressure soared, my arteries about to explode. For some time after I’d unplugged the alarm, it still reverberated in my head, but even that was better than having to go through the damned post-report checking procedures. 

Until then, no Neumodded has ever requested a brain scan. What did he want to know? What was the problem? Every day, I check his behaviour against strict criteria; all calculations show that his statistics fall within the boundaries of normal. The operation was a definite success. Several days of trailing him proved that he was recovering well. 

What happened? I wanted to know what it was that he wanted to know. They say to never let the opponent get the upper hand, but 17 wasn’t my opponent. At least until now. 

Does he want to undergo reverse operations, and cancel the effect of the previous one? According to the Neumodded Monitoring Code, the monitor must take extreme measures against the subject in this situation. 

So what on earth are you trying to do, 17? 

I stared at a screen that was really no larger than my hand, not missing a single detail. carefully manipulating the position of the sensor’s camera, adjusting it to the exact angle I wanted. I was staring so hard my eyes nearly bled. 

The old man said as he switched off the scanner. “The results are out.”

In that instant, I almost felt my heart, synchronized with 17s, leaping out of our mouths. 

“Nothing abnormal. Only this, you see,” The old man pointed at the shadow over the occipital lobe on the cerebral hologram, and said “the number of neurons here is unusually high: your brain needs a much higher oxygen intake than normal people, so you’ve been feeling exhausted, and have difficulty breathing.  Just don’t do any extreme sports. Like fucking.” The old man smirked. He obviously liked this part of his job. “Only joking.” 

“I’m into animals, anyway.” 17 replied to the floor, before squeezing out a wry smile. “Only joking.”

The old man chuckled, suddenly he rushed towards 17, pressed down on his shoulders. 17 was quick to retaliate. They struggled for a while, their faces almost touching. “What happened to your eyes? Can’t you look at people?” The old man extracted a hand, grabbed 17’s chin and forcibly pointed it towards his own face. 

17 twisted his head left, but it was twisted back by the doctor’s hand. He closed his eyes, shrieked and begged the old man to let go. 

“You can take it for a little while. Don’t you want to know the answer to that question?”

As soon as he heard this, 17 calmed down. He seemed to use all his might to lift those eyelids that seemed so heavy, a drop of sweat trickled down his face. He opened his eyes, and slowly and turned his gaze towards the old man.

Then came another scream, it was hard to tell whether it was caused by pain, horror, or both. 

They looked at each other, faces almost touching. Two men so intimately losing themselves in each other’s gaze. Fixed in the posture of two barons from an opera classic, but with none of the humour or romance. 

17 was trying his hardest to move his body backwards, as if he wanted to merge into the wall behind him, to escape this invisible monster. He was obviously in a lot of pain. Veins pulsed explosively on his forehead, he gritted his teeth, but eventually, he shut his eyes, and the doctor moved away. When 17 opened his eyes again, I zoomed in. The entire screen filled up again with that pair of milk chocolate brown irises. Those wondrous capillary lines. I had never examined a person’s eyes so closely.  It felt mysterious that I could see his eyes so intimately, but could not see a thing that they saw. 

“What did you see?” I hovered close to the screen, the tip of my nose almost touching it. 

“It’s alright. Everything’s fine.” The old man’s voice came out of the speaker. 

I leant back, zoomed the camera out to a normal distance. In the upside-down room, the old man had already returned to his previous position. He spoke nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened before. 

“Tomatoes and Parma cheese.”

“What?” 17 was bemused. 

“Eat more of these things, and spaghetti bolognaise. Nothing to worry about. Your body needs more glutamic amino acids and calcium ions. To put it simply, they’re good for your brain.” 

“Got it…” 17 hesitated. 

“I saw the microsurgery wound. It’s very visible under the microscope. Don’t worry, I can confirm it was a routine modification.” The old man was soothing the concerns 17 hadn’t voiced. A profound understanding of human nature is also the professional remit of an underground doctor. 

“So, I’m totally fine?”

“You can’t be any more normal.” The old man shrugged. 

Explosion. Shrapnel. Both figures were thrown across the floor. Documents, receipts, small items and pieces of wallpaper were hurled through the hole torn by the charge, falling under the walkway. 

A masked figure emerged from the smoke and dust. Hanging upside down, the image resembled a mirage. Facing the surgery, he lifted both arms, curled his body into a ball and somersaulted at high speed towards the walkway. All performed in one smooth balletic act, which you couldn’t help but admire. The graceful agility and imaginativeness of this exit. By the time we reacted, it was too late. The masked figure had been carrying a gun. And he had fired a single shot into the room. 

It all happened too quickly. 

17 stared at the blood that flowed over the back of his hand in a stupor. The old man had collapsed into his arms. The bullet seemed to have hit his heart. The killer was an excellent shot. 

With blood gushing out like that, it looked as though the doctor was beyond saving. The old man grabbed hold of 17 with an energy that seemed to come from a final urge to survive; there was a mumbling which could hardly escape his throat. 17 started up: he knew he had to put distance between himself and the incident. Just as he freed himself from the old man, there was a flurry of footsteps. From a door he hadn’t seen before, a pack of burly male nurses rushed in, and immediately surrounded the old man.  

“I didn’t do it. I was a patient.” 17 steps to the side. 

They ignored him, carrying the old man into the next room, and beginning emergency rescue procedures. I could tell they were experienced. Fortunately, the old man’s heart was crooked, and the bullet only found a main artery. Any hospital would stock Cell Regeneration Serum, which would rapidly repair the damage. I looked back at the nurses, only to find their faces ashen, and their bodies slumped in despair. 

“You’ve got CeReg, right?” 17 threw a glance at the freezer. 

“It’s no good.” 

“Why not?” 

“We don’t know his blood type. So we don’t know which type of serum to use.”

“But his Social Security Chip! He’s still got one.”

“All the old man’s records, his name, age, blood type. All fake,” one of them informed him hesitantly. 

“He got a hacker to ghost him,” another of them added. 

Yes, any sensible underground doctor would find a way to change or delete their personal details. The mere thought of this info being stored by the state archives would be like sitting on a bed of needles. It wasn’t just DiXia’s doctors, but many who have forsaken the light have also forsaken their identity under the sun. For them, even death is better than being caught. Your true identity must, under no circumstances, be discovered.

“Can’t you do a cross-matching to find out?” 

“There’s no time.” The male nurse burst into tears. 

I watched him. Forgetting day and night. At first, it was for work, then it was out of curiosity, and now–I don’t know. Watching through the tinted windshield of the surveillance car, or from of the monitoring screen, a day at a time. Despite this, I still don’t understand, how things had got to this stage. 

They gambled with life. 

They won.

The old man was saved.

This is only one version of the story. One among the many different narratives that have spread across DiXia. 17 didn’t use weapons, nor did his body “glow with a halo that subdued all before him”. He was just as stunned as everyone else, just as helpless. The only difference is that he seemed to know something, yet couldn’t be sure. He acted as if he was compelled to blurt out the old man’s blood type, compelled to act like he knew. And in turn, everyone else had been compelled to believe him and act on it. 

“B, RH minus P,” 17 yelled at those nurses. I replay the moment again and again. The way he shouted it out. I rewind it and fast it forward, infatuated with his expression. In that instant, his face revealed some kind of pain, but also a mysterious resolve. 

What did this expression mean for the masses? Did he show the air of calm and self-possession they hoped for?

That isn’t important. What is important is that the blood type he shouted was correct. 

The story of 17 soon spread. DiXia thirsts for blood and legend. Many flocked to find him. They wait at the places where he might appear, intercept him, politely or rudely. The first two were just curious, they wanted to see him with their own eyes, or soak up a bit of good luck. And then someone couldn’t help but ask questions, probing ones, and 17 would choose which ones to answer. He knew those questions were important, and that at least they didn’t come out of malice or boredom. He told those people where to find food, long-lost belongings, explained to them that actions from enemies that hurt them many years ago were merely due to misunderstanding, and were worth forgiving, he dissipated conflict, and helped them shape their lives. 

He knows things, that no one except the perpetrators know, or things that even they were unaware, but no one knows how. 

No, he is not a psychic. 

He explains this to those people. No, he’s not a prophet. But it’s no use. 

Within 48 hours, 17’s existence became known to the entire DiXia. They relentlessly watch at junctions he might pass, brazenly relaying him messages by hook or crook via unsuspecting acquaintances. The more extreme ones go into 17’s territory, carrying weapons. 

I saw with my own eyes some hardened villain who came looking for him, whose eyes brimmed with tears the moment he saw him. Some follow him silently, protecting him from the shadows. Women give him clean clothes; children bring him stolen fruit. 

He explained to them again and again, it was purely coincidence. If they have a good memory, they would know that he too has made mistakes. He has a 35% probability of getting it wrong. But apart from him, no one remembers the failures. 

I don’t know how all this happened, how things have careened down this path. The disconcerting thing is, deep down, I don’t feel these people are being foolish. 

When you come face to face with another frail human being just like you, and you throw him a question that has tormented you half a lifetime, when his downcast gaze slowly rises meet yours, and you look into those beautiful brown eyes, eyes that surround you alone, like the warm sun, the kind of wholesome sunlight that can only found in the Finance District; and then you feel his agony, and his resolve to withstand it, to hide those thistles and thorns below that pale skin. His eyes penetrate you, and you realize that he is alone in a darkness that drowns even himself, like the chaos before the Big Bang, time and space cease to exist, along with everything we know, there is only him. The only thing left is that gaze, the way it penetrates everything, detached and yet at the same time, full of yearning. Then you realize… you finally realize, that he is suffering for you, suffering for your petty distress. 

When you are facing all of this, would you not, in a heart beat, like the people of DiXia, fall in love with him? 

I would. 

The tenth day after the shooting at the surgery. 

News came that the old man is recovering quite well, and that he wanted to see 17. So, 17 came. 

The surgery has been restored to the way it was. The old man, in bed at his own home, looks quite well. Maybe it was an illusion, but when the sensor connected to the room, I thought I saw the old man darting a quick glance at it.

17 directs his gaze to the “empty” corner of the room and waves his hand in front of the old man’s eyes. “Doctor, are you all right now?” Having asked that, he smiles at himself. 

“Has anyone been bothering you?” The old man’s demeanor seems graver still than the first time. 

“Your friends came round asking me what the assassin looked like.”

“Yes, they told me, you fobbed them off.”

“I said it was a masked figure. It’s the truth.” 17 defended himself. 

“You’d better stick to that line. My problem, I fix it myself. You fix your own problems. Everybody’s got problems, but they fix it themselves.” The old man stops and flicks a glance over to the sensor from the corner of his eye. “This time is an exception, though. You saved my life once, so I’ll give you one piece of advice. You must remember it. This is advice that can save your life.” 

“What is it?”

“Never ever tell anyone the truth. When you came here the first time, you didn’t tell the truth; of course, neither did I. Even if you told the truth, I wouldn’t have. But now, things are different.” The old man looks at the wound on his chest, flicks the switch by his bed, changing it to walk mode. Reacting to the commands from the old man’s brain, it carries him into the depths of the surgery. “Come in. Let’s talk.” 

Another set of doors 17 hadn’t noticed slide open quietly. The bed carries the old man in and disappears. 

17’s facial expression shows more fear than puzzlement. He is afraid of what the old man will tell him, even before he knows what it might be. But still he follows him into the room. 

The sensor transmits the image of him entering the room. His back. Shadows crawling up his pale neck, about to swallow him up. 

This is when I lose him.

As it flies into the room, the sensor loses power, falls to the floor, and is crushed to powder by the closing titanium alloy doors. 

Restless noise explodes across the screen, then leave it in darkness. 

Out of habit, I change my line of sight over the wall of monitor screens. 

The pathetic thing is, no matter where I direct my vision, across the several hundred glowing screens, that small black one pierces my eyes like a needle. 

I should have realized this would happen much sooner, All high-end hospitals have anti-bugging systems. This doctor must have been someone in the medical circles, to attract a professional sniper, and to keep his calm even after being shot. If an old man like this solemnly tells you something, this thing must be very important. Important enough to be discussed in total secrecy.

I stare at the little back screen in a daze, biting my lips viciously. This is the first time I’ve lost contact with 17. Even though currently there are only two streets between us. Through the glass of the surveillance car, I can see the overpass where the underground surgery hangs. But I can’t see him, can’t hear him, don’t know what he’s doing, nor can I go and seek him out. What is he seeing, what is he saying, what is he doing? I don’t know. A minute ago, his every expression was imprinting on my memory. 

The emptiness, this immense, unfulfilling, insatiable emptiness. My palms fill with cold sweat. 

17’s screen flicker and flicker again with his image, along with snippets of conversation between him and the old man. I leap up, rummage for my pills, which I take in a dry gulp, and wait for them to take effect, suppressing the overactive neurons in my head, even though it’s a full hour before my next scheduled medication time.

Waiting.

Waiting for me to regain the ability to function as a whole. 

Waiting to become normal again. 

The pills slowly do their job. The optical and audio illusions fade and things become more bearable. 

I begin to think, find a way to solve the problem. The bug has to work in conjunction with the subject’s DNA, but there’s no sample of 17 to hand. To wait for a droid delivery from the company, would be at least 15 minutes. If the conversation lasts that long…

Someone is knocking on the car. It takes me a while to notice and react. I open the window. 

The tea-coloured glass glides soundlessly and elegantly into the body of the car, like an inverted theatre curtain.

From the curtain emerges the downcast eyes and face of 17, so close that I can almost feel his breath. My left eye begins to twitch uncontrollably. 

He says, “I know you.”

I make a nonplussed gesture with my hand. “What does that mean?”

“I know everything about you.” A distinct smile floats onto his lowered head. 

I smile too. “Oh? And what do you know?”

17 bends down, putting his lips to my ears and whispers something very slow and deliberately.

I tremble all over. It is a long time before I can open my mouth to say, “What do you want?”

“I want you to let me in, so I can explain properly.”

I open the car door. I have no choice. 

I can only let one of the several hundred subjects I have been covertly monitoring, in, and sit next to me. 

I have no other choice. 

Not just because I love him, also because of the secret he whispered in my ear.

“61, I know you’re a split-brain”.

B

17

Yes, I became a fugitive, destined for a life of vagrancy, misery, never to know another day’s peace. I threw away my mobile, tore out my implants, and now hide out on a disused subway line, becoming just another of the nameless wandering ghosts of DiXia.

And it started with a joke.

On my twenty-second birthday, I got a position at Club 27. Although it was called a “club”, it was a public welfare organization, whose aim was to help the manically depressed find happiness again, through the benevolence of human care. They were opposed to the use of “unethical” technologies such as ECT, antidepressants and DNA editing.

At the time, I didn’t really appreciate the founder’s goals. For one reason or another, I just really needed to feel like part of a group, and if there was money to be made, then all the better. My job was very simple, to keep the patients company. I was to chat with them and talk about “fun things” with them. Before I formally started my work, there was a training period, to teach us how to chat. Every day, I had to tell our coach a joke.

My coach wasn’t bad at all. Apparently she’d been a patient there, who re-discovered her place in life through the help of the organization.

She was really inspirational. Every time I saw her, it was like watching a Mao-era propaganda movie. I almost used that as a topic for chatting with the patients.

That morning, I came up with a new joke. But the coach didn’t seem to like it.

“So this is the joke you are going to tell me today?” The coach’s plump face hovered directly above my head, the fat flesh on her usually sunny face hung so low that I felt it could have flowed off the bones and dripped onto me at any moment.

Maybe the coach thought I was making insinuations at her. But it wasn’t until that night that I knew how much I would pay for that joke. A group of people broke into my room in the middle of the night. I was on the sofa. Before I could react, my nose was filled with a mixture of the smells. Formaldehyde. Vanilla ice cream. The distinct smell that comes with artificially grown cow hide. It lasts for ages, and somewhere in the middle of it, I lost consciousness.

Before I woke up, I had a very long dream. It was black, furry, warm and moist. You’d say, oh please, use some other adjectives, but how else can I describe it. Except for a word that conveys an absolute nothingness beyond empty, oblivion, void, or, to use a verb: falling.

But none of them is quite right. My dream was black and furry and warm and wet. I have never had such a dream, so can’t give a name to it. My dream didn’t take me anywhere, or show me anything. Nothing happened. It was just there, and then I woke up.

Ha! I was on the street. I had some cuts and bruises. I must have been worked over pretty well whilst I was out. The coach must really have had enough of me, to have said goodbye like this. I was a little upset. Because I couldn’t amuse her with my joke, even though the tests showed she had recovered from her depression.

It was dawn, not many people on the streets. The lamp posts were still glowing. Not long after, the shops began to open, and in rapid succession tourists came to occupy the arcades. The whole world comes to see this. The last remnant of the Floating City, with its old-fashioned, crammed architecture that had been deemed unsafe, and a public transport system with zero convenience ratings. Apart for the nanoprint machine on the street corner, it was like being completely transported back to the twentieth century. It was a good season. The snow had just melted, the fog had yet to arrive, and the continuous wall of graffiti was clearly visible in the post-winter sunlight. Yes, graffiti, neon lights, and of course body mod parlors and Tattoo festivals. This city absorbs all sounds, all words, all impulses that are hard to put a name to, like a giant radioactive beast. And then regurgitates it, reconstructing it as an unimaginable whole, the causes and effects of which become indistinguishable. There isn’t another city like this in the entire world. There was another Tattoo Festival soon. When that day arrives, the whole street would be so packed as to be totally impenetrable.

The faces, filled with yearning, pressed tightly against the body of strangers, visible hot breaths occasionally streaming out of the crowd, looking up at the dancing mirages in the air, imploring to be basked in them, like a kind of blessing.

A bunch of happy little idiots.

I drew back my thoughts, and carefully stretched out my body, hearing the clicking in every joint, and surveyed my surroundings. I hadn’t seen the sky and streets at this hour for a long time. Soaked in the quiet mercurial light, they looked solid.

I hadn’t felt like this in ages. I had almost forgotten what quiet felt like.

A nanoprint repairman walked hurriedly past me. Blue uniform, hat of the same material, black round-toed shoes, medium build. I didn’t really see him. When he walked out of my line of sight, I felt something weird. Like the unsettling premonition people often get when they are about to lose something. I replayed the scene of the workman walking past me in my head and felt as if something was added to it.

“Hello, young man.” A middle-aged jogger waved at me from across the street. His enthusiasm infected me. I waved back with both my arms but couldn’t utter a word.

It was as if someone had grabbed my head and repeated rammed it against a wall, or giant waves were hitting me one after another. An unknown giant object had crashed into my eyeballs and hit my brain. I couldn’t breathe. I waved my arms in futility. The old man turned his head and returned a full and warm smile—when someone told me about this later, I laughed until I cried.

 That’s when they first appeared, though it’s probably more accurate to say that I fell into a sea of them, coming out of nowhere, giant “screens” seem to emerge from the sky, layer upon layer, surging and leaping, the smallest one was half the height of a person, the content contained all sorts of pictures and texts, before I could see all the information on one field, the next one leapt out to cover all the others that came before. I felt trapped, drowning in this tidal wave of uninvited electronic data.

(It was like accidentally clicking on a malicious link, and countless webpages leaping out.)

I closed my eyes, squeezing the muscles so tightly that they were almost cramping. I was scared that those crazy webpages would force open my eyelids and slam into my eyes.

My head was about to explode. I doubled over to hold it, my whole body collapsing on the ground.

I was relieved to see the screens quickly disappear, and the pain they brought gradually fading, too.

What happened to me?

Were these screens, these Infofields just my imagination or were they real?

Maybe the world we exist in had always been made up of virtual scenes simulated by the brain? Had the people at the club moved my consciousness into a simulated life? These were the only ways I could understand how those Infofields could leap out of the sky like real objects.

How could I be sure that the current me was the real me, and not a virtual image made up of code? If this was virtual, then the level of virtual simulation was very high and very close to reality. From the racing of my heart, to my body temperature to the feel of my injuries, including the terror I was feeling that was like falling into a cave of ice. It was impossible to differentiate from reality.

I did what any normal person would do under these circumstances. I went nuts and vandalized the public facilities. I found the nanoprint machine. With most of humanity’s material needs now dependent on these tiny robots I couldn’t think of anything realer. No matter how high tech they are though, breaking them was still easy.  There’s at least a hundred ways I could think of, and I used the most crude. I opened the case and tore out the circuits.

I stood on the same spot and waited. If this was virtual, then some yellow security light would leap out on the video screen, to remind me how close my antisocial personality ratings are to exceeding the limit, how close I am to being placed on the list of dangerous individuals, also providing the location of the nearest police officers coming to arrest me, as well as the best routes for escape.

None of this happened.

No flashing lights. No alarm.

There were still policemen though, but by the time they got there, I was long gone. What the security camera recorded would have been a blurred figure with its back towards the camera, its face covered. Of course I covered my face. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.

In the city archives, my records would still be clean.

Without a doubt, I was in reality.

Only here, does evil go unpunished.

So, I didn’t really have to go to DiXia. For damaging a nanotech machine, the punishment would probably have just been a little time in community service. But something didn’t feel quite right. It was instinct that drove me underground. I think you would understand, -considering those violently surging, relentless windows of data.

In my mind, there was something very wrong.

Yes, it’s true that there is probably only an indistinct chaos in the depth of the human brain, deep down everyone is cross-wired, everyone is mad. But what happened in my mind, was far beyond madness. I would rather that something had been done to me, than be truly mad. The mad are so lonely.

The most frightening thing in this world, is being mad in a different way to everyone else.

In the darkness of the metro, the Infofields don’t appear. I wanted to work something out from this clue. I failed.

But the darkness has its own way of telling you things.

About five or six days in, I’d gone through all the food I could find. Don’t ask me what I found: you don’t want to know. I had to go above ground to try my luck. Two o’clock in the morning, I bypassed an automatic street lamp, and found a Chinese restaurant that looked quite good. I shooed away a couple of stray cats, opened the bin, what a treat. It may have looked like shit, but the freshly cooked vegetables, fish and meat dishes thrown away together still smelled mouth-watering. That scent alone left me feeling energized from head to toe, I’d hit the jackpot.

“Kid, do you know whose territory this is?”

I turned around, and guess what I saw.

To a casual observer, I was standing under the streetlamp facing another lost soul, just like me, but those Infofields rushed at me like a tsunami, almost overflowing my vision. I could see nothing except them. Yes, this time was painful too, but you get used to pain.

“Didn’t you hear me, little bastard?” So he was an older man. Of course, I heard him. If it wasn’t for the Infofields, he probably wouldn’t have been my match. I reluctantly let go of the food and backed away.

I was meticulous in not let him notice that I couldn’t see.

Footsteps drew near. A foul stink rushed towards me. Without thinking, I ran down several streets without stopping: it wasn’t until I saw the traffic lights at a junction that I realized I could actually see again.

That night, I got nothing. I returned to my hideout trying to suppress the hunger in my stomach and lay down exhausted. When my spine touched the ice-cold floor, it quivered, I suddenly had an idea. Because I ran away in a panic, I had not realized that when I turned my head to run, the Infofields disappeared. Remembering how they appeared and disappeared over the last few times, I found a basic pattern: they appear whenever I run into people. To be more precise, when I am looking at someone. When my line of vision moves away from them, the fields disappear. The delay is less than a second.

I also remembered, that although I could only capture a very small amount of information in them, the content seemed to be completely related to the person I was looking at. In other words, at the same time as I am looking at a person, I also “see” all the information related to them. They are all displayed to me in the format of these windows, which open and overlap each other continually. They not only cover up the older fields, but also my normal vision, and to a large extent disrupt the my ability to deal with what’s in front of me. Such an enormous amount of information was far beyond the receptive capacity of the retina, the visual part of my brain and all neurons connecting them. This is why the surge of windows cause me agony. 

If someone else told me this, I’d think they were mad.

The best way to test my hypothesis was to look at someone. One at a time, to consciously control the appearance of the Infofields, and then to observe.

There was no better ground for experimentation than DiXia.

My earliest test subjects were my fellow vagrants who accidentally ran into me. I concealed myself in dark corners and waited patiently for them to appear. I only needed a little light. They would hesitantly approach the light, and in the dull rays, show their faces. The names they had abandoned, their lovers, happy memories, shameful ones, debts accumulated together with things they themselves had forgotten, appeared before me in rapid succession, chaotically sweeping past my brain at high velocity. Most of it was gone, before I had a chance to take it in, but I seemed to vaguely feel it, like smoke from the tips of a flame. I couldn’t read it, but I could feel it.

After several observations, I proved my hypothesis. I can browse other people, skim-read them. Whether I wanted or not. Most of the time, I didn’t want to.

How can I explain it? It’s sort of like, one day you discover that the strangers you went to a music festival with, whose names you don’t even know, have suddenly spilled into your bedroom and made you their soul mate.

Yes, that verb, spilled.

But it wasn’t all bad. I got some new skills out of the blue. When the need arises, things I have never done before naturally come to me, as though I’d done them many times before. Of course, the body and muscles need to learn these processes by practice before the brain could command them to do them accurately.

For example, where to find nutritious food that doesn’t go off, how to avoid getting caught by the city patrol, how to build a comfortable nest with rubbish you find, how to set traps, and make basic defensive weapons. By scanning the homeless, I inadvertently took in a lot of their survival skills.

Of course, there was information that wasn’t so useful. Like how to identify the gender of dolphins.  Why bicycles can stand upright. The effect of genetically modified crops on the soil. The league of a hundred genre fiction writers of the last century.

This all sounds exiting, but what does it entail?

When I see someone, not only are their biometric readings, personality makeup, all their memories and dreams completely exposed to me, all the knowledge they have ever learned, everything they knows, can be accessed by me.

If I could get over this damned headache and master how to manipulate these Infofields, then everyone in the world would become my moving pawn.

Why am I not excited?

Firstly, I’ll never be able to handle this agony, never be able to figure out how to control these leaping fields, I don’t know how to focus and gather the information. Besides, even if I could? So what?

I am not interested in saving humanity or even myself. If I could lead a tramp’s life adequately with these skills, I’d be satisfied.

I like this rotten darkness.

The world is a mess. Curled up in the cold and wet of this cave-like DiXia, darkness is the only thing that surrounds me, I even feel its warmth. The only warmth I need.

The warmer it is, the heavier it gets, the heavier it gets, the sweeter it feels. It’s hard to break away from it.

Why should I open my eyes?

The story would end here. If it wasn’t for 61.

I know he’s watching me. I’ve known all along.

He doesn’t know I know, nor does he know I’ve been watching him all along too—with his eyes.

The night outside the Chinese restaurant when I got so scared I nearly pissed my pants, I didn’t go home empty handed. That night, I ran into 61.

I was running frantically along the backstreets of a bar, until I ran out of steam. I was leaning against a lamppost to catch my breath, when I saw a car in a dark alley, just out of the corner of my eye. The window was half open and I saw him sitting in the driver’s seat, head titled back, taking a nap. His lips were slightly open. He was clearly very young, but had the look of middle age.

The screens began to spring up, and I fled.

This was how we first met, brief and sudden, because one of us slacked for a moment.

He shouldn’t have let me see him. That way, I wouldn’t get suspicious if I saw the same car again. Next time I saw him ducking into the car with a sandwich. This time, I scanned him. I only had a moment, but luck was on my side, I grasped some key information.

His name is 61, he is 27 years old, and he works for Club27 as a security controller.

He was sent to monitor me, among others, using infrared molecular sensors. Oh, and he really likes this job.

I didn’t understand why the club wanted to track me, but the answer wasn’t hard to find. The answer was in the security controller’s memory. As long as I had enough time to read it, I could find the answer. If I was lucky, I could uncover the ins and outs of the whole business.

Enough time, enough opportunities, and enough stamina to withstand the agony in my head.

There is nothing easier than tracking your tracker. As long as you pretend not to know anything and continue to let him track you. You don’t have to do anything. He’ll follow you.

Very soon, I became familiar with the routines of the security controller. He spends most of his time in the surveillance car behind one-way windshields. The car is parked on a street not far from me. Every day, about five o’clock in the afternoon, he would go to the bar, order a hamburger with chips, and two bottles of beer, and then unwind there for half an hour.

Four-fifty in the afternoon, I walk into that bar and find a seat. Even if he saw me, he would dismiss it as a coincidence. A few minutes later, he came in and found his regular seat. I looked at him. The only time of the day he wasn’t snooping on others, he was being spied on himself. He was totally unaware of this, eating his meal alone peacefully, emanating an air of calm. His uncoordinated hand movements were even endearing. In a second, the fields opened, refreshing at super speed. The information was no longer in waves, but giant, concrete slabs, dense, heavy, viciously crashing onto my retina, I could almost see the sparks they caused, and the bloody pulp that was my brain. I bit my lips, to stop myself from screaming, gripping the table, white-knuckled.

61’s Infofields were different from others’, the quantity being several times higher.

I was like a dog trying to chase a space shuttle, pathetically pawing at the rapidly zooming windows.

I couldn’t even see the fields themselves, let alone read their content. I could only feel their weight and speed. And catch a few little bits of information.

61’s childhood, his favourite colour, what happened in high school.

Why would I want to know these things?

Sweat trickled down my neck.  I felt dehydrated. I no longer had the energy to face the barrage of data. There was something very unusual about this guy. Too fast, too much. I couldn’t work it out.

I gave up.

As with so many other things, I gave up halfway.

Shifting my vision, all the Infofields now safely fell to the floor. I was panting and shaking all over.

There was a distinct difference between the information acquired by chance and the specific data I’m looking for.

If I was willing to spend the rest of my life on this person, then I might find what I’m looking for. This was a question of probability, and I didn’t want to gamble with my life. So, I gave up.

I can do “giving up” with my eyes closed.

I staggered out of the bar as if I’d drunk it dry.

Around this time, I also began to feel my body rapidly weakening, I couldn’t run for long, I couldn’t lift things. My sight was deteriorating, too. Sometimes I got so tired just foraging for food. Despite this, my appetite grew, and I found myself in a constant state of hunger. As the weather got warmer and warmer, my limbs still felt cold, till I had to put on every rag of clothing I’d scavenged just to stop from freezing.

Only the darkness was warm. But it wasn’t enough. For some unknown reason, I’d picked this kind of life, including the way it would end.

I lay on cardboard, the damp of the ground seeped through all the wastepaper and old clothes into my bones. And suddenly, I thought of 61.

To know that there was someone always watching you was a bizarre feeling.

If he wants, he could repeatedly watch your every move. Zoom into every subtle change in your expression. There was something very wrong with this guy called 61. His windows were opening much faster than the average rate. The strangest thing about his fields was that they actually felt different from other people’s, and almost all of them had an incompleteness. Some of them contained contradictory information. It’s like he’s thinking with two brains.

I couldn’t help but think there must be a connection between the content on these incomplete and dense slabs of data, the stark contrast between the contradicting ones, and the way he watched me.

I could feel tiny fragments of his memory: him looking at me on the screen. Me curled up on the cardboard, staring at something in the darkness in a stupor.

Yes, that’s me. Small and withered, with a pair of light brown eyes that could be extinguished at any time.

Back then, I was ready to welcome the embrace of death. My only enjoyment, was scanning 61, and retrieving his memories from my mind in the dark. Sometimes I felt shy, about the way he watched me, if only 61 would behave himself.

Robbing the leather coat was an accident. I read that the guy had an artificial knee, I switched on the interceptor that disrupted the actuator and successfully put the enemy down. I was very lucky to be able to pull the right trick out of my trivia-filled head at the right time. Heavens know why I didn’t give up then. Finding the underground hospital via that poor guy, I ran into a shooting, and was again lucky to be able to read the doctor’s blood type and save his life.

This was coincidence. To be able to get the right information out of this unquantifiable sea of data at the right time. It was almost impossible. But I did it twice. If I could do that, I didn’t want to pursue the reasons too deeply.

But things were getting complicated. One by one, people found me. They asked me questions. Questions about them. Hoping I would have an answer.

Who’s my mother?

Where did the cargo end up?

Did I really kill someone?

Did he betray us?

Where’s the money hidden?

Which one should I choose?

What’s the success rate of this operation?

Is the shadow I see on the fly-over south of the city every night a ghost?

What is the ultimate mystery of the universe?

I should have known that the DiXia would be the home of so many questions, every one like an undercurrent. When I met the first stranger who stopped me with a question, I couldn’t help laughing. I roared with laughter. I thought of 61 who was watching the monitor. He must be laughing with me. They expect someone who hasn’t even worked out what’s going on in their head to answer their questions.

I told them I don’t know. They said yes, yes you do know. You saved that old man. I told them I might be able get it right, they said yes, yes you will. You saved that old man. I told them I could only try, they said, thank you. Please try, help us like you helped that old man.

I couldn’t help but laugh, but didn’t know why my eyes felt sore and puffy, like a weeping that should have happened but never did. You just can’t turn those imploring faces away. They have been locked up by their troubles for too long. If I take one look, however brief, those sad windows hurt me. But you just can’t turn those earnest faces away, especially when they couldn’t even see their sadness themselves.

For most of these people, even if I get the answer right, I can’t help them. This is what I tell them. They say it doesn’t matter, we just want the answer.

They just want the answer. So I lift my eyes, and I read.

Every time it finishes, I feel like I’m falling from the sky. As I gained more experience, the process seemed to feel a little less dangerous each time. One day eventually, I would land safely. My recovery from reading extended from a half an hour at the beginning to half a day, I would be in a complete in a state of dehydration. The good news is, people look after me. I’m not sure when but they began to gather around me and care for me as one of their own. They followed me around all day. Some people are not even there for answers. They just want to be by my side. When they find a chance to look after me, they darted at it without hesitation, as if it’s an instinct.

The funny thing is, I haven’t even seen the faces of lot of them properly. Except for scanning, my eyes were becoming increasingly poor at the job of actual sight.

Something was wrong. I want to know if my answer is correct, but I know it’s no use asking them. Perhaps I can ask 61. He would be able to see more clearly than I can.

Once, in my dream, I went to seek him out, I open the door of the surveillance car, sit next to the driver’s seat, and then ask him questions, just like these people have asked me.

I ask, 61, what did you do to me?

Even if it was a dream. I could still feel 61’s eyes watching me from somewhere outside his body.

61 watches me sleep. 61 watches me wake up.

I read his memories, I see him watching me sleep, see him watching me wake up.

I open my eyes.

Someone was nudging my shoulder, urging me to hurry and wake up, he said, the old man wants to see me.

I open my eyes. This is not a dream…

The moment I entered the secret room, my skull felt numb. The doctor’s bed spun 180 degrees and rushed towards me. I imagined the old man looking at me.

“Interference,” he said to me.

I nodded.

“You’re going blind.” The old man announced my future in the same tone of voice.

I put my hands in my pockets. It’s very cold here. There are no chairs.

“You’ve got something to say?” he asks me.

“The first time I saw you, I thought you had just the right face to announce such misfortunes.”

“Did you already know you were going blind?”

“No. That’s why I came to see you. I wanted to know what happened to me. Do you want to tell me now?” I lean against the wall.

“Humph, others seek answers from you. But you come to me. You don’t even know about yourself.” The old man sneered.

“Listen, thank you for telling me I’ll be blind in a few days, but I’m starving now. I need to go and eat.” I was about to walk out of the house.

“A month ago, someone performed microsurgery on your brain, the effect of which was to stop the conducting of stimuli in your optical nerve. Who did you piss off? They were also worried you might cause trouble, so they didn’t cut the optical nerve, but edited a section of your DNA, which stops the synaptic function of the nerve membrane. The chemical transmission of an impulse from one neuron to another, is like one of them passing a ball to another, the next neuron must hold out its hand to catch it. The post-synaptic membrane is like this hand. What they did was to try and freeze the action of a neuron’s hand, so it can’t catch the ball. Doing it this way makes it more discreet: you won’t go blind immediately. You may not even know what made you lose your sight.”

“If I can’t catch it with my hand, I’ll do it with my feet”. It was a clumsy joke along the lines of his analogy. What did he expect me to do? Cry? Break down?

The old man doesn’t speak.

“Your silence gives me hope that you’ve got have some good news. Can you cure it?” I mock.

“There are people who can do it, if you’ve got enough money. The question is, do you want it?”

I couldn’t help looking at the old man. In an instant, electric sparks. I felt the opening of his windows.

“What do you call those things?” he asked me, narrowing his eyes.

“Infofields.”

“I’ve been in Club27. They offer operations for all sufferers of depression who had no hope of being cured by their little chats, or more conventional psycho-technological treatments. Maybe out of social responsibility, probably out of the pride in their 100% cure rate. I was one of them. They cured me and released me back into society. And then these “Infofields” appeared out of the blue. What you have experienced, I have: the terror, the pain. I nearly died. Because I’m an optimist, I wanted to get back into society, to offer help where it’s needed in the depths of DiXia, and you know how that works out. But on the third day, like a miracle, they disappeared. So I lived. When I met you, I felt a strange inkling. After the spectrometer scan, I knew you’d been through the same optical nerve transmission interception operation, but I didn’t know about the Infofields. No device can detect them. It was only when they told me what happened after I passed out that I knew.

“So the Infofields weren’t what the coach and her cronies intended?” I asked.

“The interception was them. The Infofields were not.” the old man said.

“I didn’t think it was them either, those people… lack imagination.” I nodded in agreement.

We both laughed.

I breathed in and plucked up the courage to ask. “So what exactly are they?”

“If I say to you that some things have happened in your consciousness but you are not conscious of them, you’d think I was bullshitting. It’s widely believed that under the conscious is the preconscious, and underneath that what Freud called the “Unconscious of eros and thanatos”. But a hundred years before him, there had already been a hypothesis on a different system of the unconscious. The appearance of Infofields, proved this theory. This system of the unconscious manifests itself in sight: when the light simulates your retina and triggers the chain of nervous impulses in your brain, your visual system would carry out complex calculations on the data it receives. Through a series of multi-staged processing of the image produced by the light on the retina, a three- dimensional perception of the outside world is emitted. In the multitude of unconscious coding and processing, you are aware only of the final result. You are born with an information-processing mechanism that turns the vibrations on your eardrum from sound to the instinctual knowledge that these are words someone is trying to say to you. All this happens beneath consciousness.”

“You mean, what we see, is actually much, much more than we are conscious of, but the conscious only feeds back a very small part of it?”

“This very small part is more than enough for human usage. It’s the result of evolutionary selection.”

“And the Infofields?”

“Oh, that’s the rest of it. It’s there, only we’ve never been conscious that we see them.”

“What exactly are they?”

“The information inherent within us as individuals, that accumulates with age and experiences.” The old man suddenly sighed in dejection. “I don’t know…don’t believe a word of what I just said.”

I almost collapsed. “What?!”

“The Infofields are only my theory. Although I’ve spent my whole life studying them, I was only able to see them for three days. Can you think about the ones you see?”

It’s like he said. Carefully avoiding looking at the content, I could tell that the format of the text and images are the same, all the information is related to the person they come from. At least the ones I’ve read.

Imagine a world like this, where everyone walks around carrying with them information that can be seen but not perceived. All this information congesting all the space around us. Yet even this dimensional space around me may not be the three-dimensional projection my sensory organs are telling me.

“Howcome I can see them?”

 “When you came the first time, I did a little experiment while you weren’t looking”. The old man’s voice sounded a little odd, but soon recovered. “It’s really nothing. I used pico-tech.”

“And?”

“To use our previous metaphor, your neurons have caught the ball using their feet. Your body can no longer produce the protein that transmits impulses in the receptor, but has opened up another rarer path of transmission, usually meant for support and supplementary functions, another kind of slow-functioning receptor. These receptors usually combine with Protein G, and operate via cAMP and phosphorylation of proteins. The reaction is slow, but it can magnify the microsignals between messenger receptors by a thousand.  When they suppressed the composition of transmission proteins in the neuron, they stimulated the low-speed receptors, elevating them from amateur extras to playing the lead. This is possibly why you can see the Infofields.”

“This is the story of a volleyball player who loses the function of his arms, and trains himself to master control of the ball with his feet, becoming a footballer. It’s a true story of unstoppable resolve triumphing over a physical handicap. My old coach at the club would have loved it,” I commented. “But I’m going to be blind very soon, aren’t I? How can a handicapped athlete kick the ball blind?”

“You may go blind, but you’ll still be able to see.”

Having heard the old man’s words, I thought he was mad, or perhaps I was. I let my body slide slowly down, to the ice-cold floor.

“Yes, sit tight. What I’m going to say next could take a while.” The old man approved. He really did take ages.

He began “Do you know of the Superconcious?”

“Experiments of the last century found that animals, including humans who lost their sight after suffering damage in the specific region of the visual cortex, were not necessarily completely unable to see. Although their sight was blank, they were still receiving stimulus in some manner. Impulses from the outside world were still being filtered by what remained of their capabilities of assessing their surroundings. For me, the interception of impulses actually opened up my awareness of the Infofields.”

“Blindness is not a problem. The important thing is to learn to how to see, or should I say, how to inforead. The Infofield is an enormous information stream with its own vast quantifying units, displaying itself in images and text. As demonstrated by my plight and failure, the brain still doesn’t know how to receive this much information, let alone sort through it selectively. This must be achieved through conscious practice, like going through physiotherapy after getting a prosthetic limb.” 

I tried to process this. After all, the old man had said these were just his conjectures and probings. He had only seen the Infofields for three days, but if I needed help, he would help me.

I said all right. The old man asked me to recount to him in detail all the encounters I’ve had with the Infofields, which I did. He was silent for a long time. But I wasn’t surprised. I was pretty much beyond surprise, after my experiences. I was very lucky to have saved this old man’s life, and very grateful that now, and in the future, he would be there to help me.

That day, we spent an age in the room, the old man taking great pains to ensure I had a firm grasp and a proper understanding of my new sense. We must have been in there for a long time; I was dizzy from lack of oxygen in the air. Although many puzzles were solved and the mysteries within them revealed, I did not feel relieved. I wasn’t sure if I was capable of utilizing or even comprehending this knowledge.

“It’s not just your sight that’s the problem. Your brain is using four times as much oxygen as the average person: this will greatly affect your other organs and their functionality. Your body will weaken more over time. This is why…” The old man paused prudently, in order to hold my full attention. I leaned in, my ear towards him, ready to receive his prescription. “…you must have someone by your side.”

C

17

Rays of sunlight fell like knives: white hot, ruthless and raw. I descended the rope ladder, trembling, waved at the male nurses at the entrance of the underground hospital, to signal that I’ve touched down in safety.  If they hadn’t sedated me, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to leave the hospital.

I look down again, the anxious faces on craned necks have gone. I lie on my stomach on the walkway, unable to move, like a lost swimmer who had been struggling to reach the shore.

The old man said I must have someone by my side. I need someone to take care of me, someone to see the world on my behalf. I looked around me, the night was just creeping up the horizon. The wind was moist, mingled with the scents of the sea and the port. The abandoned industrial site, now dappled in the colour of rust, appears in my eyes, to be a picture of grace and serenity. No people, no deluge of data, no information streams. Objects in their own place. Every atom and molecule showing themselves in a manner my five pedestrian senses understand them. This is beauty.

However, I am going to lose them all really soon.

And then, I will completely lose all the sights I have known for all so long. Only the windows, the infostreams, or the void.

The old man said I need someone: I need to borrow his eyes, and then I’ll live. Even now, I know that there is a pair of eyes watching me, in their strange, relentless way.

The car is parked at the corner of the street. A hand came out of it with a lit cigarette; it remains there for an age. It seems the smoker is merely content for the cigarette to be lit. I head down the fly-over, take a turn to another street towards the car. This way, I am directly facing the car and can see the person inside.

From 61’s point of view, I am just taking a casual stroll, and happen to walk past. He probably never thought anyone would become aware of his monitoring. Slowly, I approach. From less than three metres away from the car, I look up at him.

Almost, immediately, an Infofield leaps out. Perhaps it’s been waiting for me all along. This time, I don’t let myself get drowned in the flood of information, nor do I struggle to dig for information that might relate to me. As the old man deduced, the data we can read is limited by the brain’s capacity to process information; most of it is omitted. But some Infofields would pause for longer, or appear at a higher frequency, to render themselves to be read more easily. This is highly likely to be linked to the desires and inclinations of the individual being scanned.

The information they long for you to know.

So, this is what you want to tell me. I lower my gaze.

As I predicted, 61 lets me in the car.

This is what people are like. You tell them their secret, something they have keep deep within their hearts, secrets that have tormented them for years, and they will trust you.

They want to trust you.

I told 61, he’s a split-brain, born without the Corpus Callosum, the fibre bundle that connects the left and right hemispheres. Technically, he doesn’t have a cerebrum, that whole mind we use daily. Just left and right hemispheres, doing their own thing. This explains his bizarre hand gestures and the way he looks at people. They let him live and trained him to do this job. Still, his hands can only master actions they have been trained and practiced in doing.

Both hemispheres working at the same time also means that he doesn’t have a conventional sense of morality. His attributes are a perfect match for this job. For 61, this was the only place that would give him a job. He hopes to earn enough money to get an osso-data processor implant. The advert says that this implant will connect two halves of an artificially grown brain to the corresponding halves of the patient’s own grey matter, providing a split-brain patient with two complete and functioning brains.

He has dreamt about this implant. His desire for it grows stronger every day. That’s why I could scan the Infofield with billboard clarity.

“How are you doing, 61?” I lowered my head and addressed the floor of the car. Very soon, I would no longer need to avoid people’s faces.

“I’m all right.”

“We don’t need to introduce ourselves. I know you’ve been tracking me, so you know what’s happened to me, probably better than I do.”

“The club performed some mind-reading operation on you.”

No, you are too naïve. 61. What they did to me isn’t what you think. “Do you know I’m going blind?”

He froze, I felt his breath stop too. For an instant, I suddenly came to the belief that this individual might be willing to take care of me. “The club played a nasty trick, maybe it was just on the coach’s orders. Do you want to take care of me?” The words fell out of my mouth.

The left hemisphere of his brain must be in chaos right now. But I feel too exhausted to beat around the bush or play mind games.

“I’m going blind very quickly: my body is becoming weaker and weaker. If I don’t have anyone, I’ll die on the streets. You just need to keep the oxygen flasks stocked up and give me injections of calcium ions and glutonic amino acids.” I paused for breath, also to slow down my speech. “You have two choices, abandon everything and come with me, or abandon me.”

He was trembling.

He must be frightened to death. What can I expect a total stranger to do? To love me more than this world?

Perhaps. I decided to try again.

“You know what I can do, right?”

This time, he spoke. “You can answer questions.”

My lips started to tremble. Did he really think I was psychic? “Listen, I over-exaggerated before. I’m really tired today. I went to the doctor’s. He told me a lot of things. It’s ok, maybe I’ll explain to you properly later—maybe I won’t. But the important thing is…” I reached for his shoulders, he voluntarily moved his body towards me. I took hold of him, very tightly. “The important thing is… I was being too dramatic before, you can still continue to do your job, monitor other people, but take me with you.”

61 became silent. He needed time to think. But I was already burnt out. Stretched to my limit. I let go, opened the window, and let the wind blow away the despair in the air. From this side, I could see the park across the river. In the misty fog, the lights looked particularly dim that day.

I realized that it was the Tattoo Festival. They are getting ready for it, misting the air with nutrified water, to help the ink spores grow.

“Oh, today’s the Tattoo Festival.” My own voice comes from somewhere far away.

A month ago, I wouldn’t have felt like this. Like an old man.

61 coughs. “Can you answer one question?” His body is now rocking back and forth anxiously.

“Please ask.”

“There was a time, when twenty or so homeless kids in the eastern suburbs asked you to have a word with a landlord, to let them keep their shanty town up. How did you persuade the guy? What did you say to him in the anti-bug chamber?”

“Oh, that guy was getting into much deeper trouble, and I offered him a more reliable suggestion.”

61’s gaze paused on the side of my face. “But actually you weren’t 100% sure?”

“I deduced, the key thing is that I have a lot of information, which allows me to work things out. Why else do you think he would believe a crazy old stranger who’s been living a subway? When the bodyguard held me back, I shouted something to him that he really wanted to know, something that has always been troubling him.”

“Which was?”

“When he was little, he loved the work of a novelist, who excelled everyone else in his eyes. But one day, he reads that this novelist wrote a short story with someone. He could never understand why the novelist deigned to collaborate with someone of lesser skill to produce an ordinary piece of work. The question clung to him and has always plagued him. He just didn’t understand.”

61 nods. He doesn’t ask about the writer’s motive in the collaborative short story. This made me admire him more. He understands the point of this story. The point is that if I had access to the secrets of the local gangster’s heart, I would have a good answer to the question. He believes me.

The engine starts, making an annoying noise. I lean back in the seat and close my eyes.

61 turns the wheel, and the car speeds down the motorway.

We slide into silence. The gigantic, tender silence that belongs to all exhausted dusks. At this moment, I feel both cold and warm: a place inside me, I’m not sure where, feels ticklish. I notice a slight lethargy. That mysterious sense of oppression, is flying away. I feel I can do anything. My fingertips feel numb, but my senses feel very acute. Sight, hearing, touch, they all feel as if they are exceeding their previous functionality. It’s as if I’m entering a new world.

The cannons sounded across the river. I open my eyes. Night has come.

Multicolored fireworks are blossoming in the sky. Countless excited silhouettes below. Men and women almost half naked, opening their bodies to scattered petals floating and swirling in midair, exposing even more of their flesh to meet the ink spores in the falling firework ash. When the spores encounter skin, they will immediately pierce the derma, and squads of nanobots will complete the tattooing process, trailing dyes behind them. As to the pattern, this is entire dependent on algorithms, completely up to the nanobots inside the spores. But it’s OK. The dye and the nanobots degrade in three days, leaving not even a trace of a trace. And those people who are madly screaming to be tattooed, will have completely purified bodies, new as freshly born babes: that is why people are obsessed with the Tattoo Festival.

Three more sky flowers bloom. These beautiful botanic night scenes only exist for an instant, but in that instant, they blossom with all the splendor of time. In the next moment, their pink petals fall like snow, carried by the sea breeze, the whole city trembles in ash. Pedestrians now occupy the whole city. Our car is marooned in the midst of these euphoric half-naked bodies and can only move forward with the pace at which they are chasing the spores. Another breeze sent a petal flowing through the car window, landing on my arm. I try to brush it away, but too late. The spore has entered my skin. Nearby, the sky erupts with another fire blossom, screams of joy coming from below. I look up at the night sky, it’s beautiful and serene like black velvet. I rub my eyes, and turn over my hand to observe. There is so much dye in that single spore, spreading across my whole arm in just a moment, my whole arm, my whole body, the whole night. It all becomes velvet black.

“When you look at other people. You can see what they can’t see. Can you tell me about what you see?”

“Later, if there’s time.”

“Have you ever scanned yourself?”

“You mean, in a mirror?” I asked. “Maybe tonight, I can try; after all, it’s not as if my eyes have anything better to do.”

I try to remember the last joke I told my coach. The one I got blinded for. The funny thing is, I paid such a big price, but the content of that joke? Seriously, I can’t remember a thing. But it doesn’t matter, I’m about to see a ready-made joke.

I fumble, find the rear-view mirror and flip it down. I point my face to the mirror in my imagination.

I will see myself. Every little drip and drop of the past, all my desires and longings, all that I love and hate, all the gnawing regrets, all the potential and possibilities, all my future realities and achievements.

I take a deep breath, lift my blind eyes, and face myself in the mirror. Here they come, gushing into my vision like water from a spring. Blacker than black, emptier than empty. Every Infofield the same. Nothing. Even light has been engulfed.

This is me. A darkness that can never be illuminated, transcended or redeemed. 


Tang Fei is a writer and commentator. Member of the Shanghai Writer’s Association and the SFWA, having published such works as include Paradise in the Clouds, The Person who Saw Cetus and The Anonymous Banquet. Since 2013, ten of her works have been translated and published around the world; her novella The Panda Keeper won Best Microfiction at 2019’s Smokelong Quarterly, Wu Ding’s Journey to the West won the Silver Prize for Most Popular Deduction Fiction at the Speculative Fiction in Translation Awards, and The Robe won Best Short Story at the Yinli (China Reader’s Choice) SF Awards. Apart from writing, she also dabbles in other art forms such as literary criticism, poetry, installation art and photography. Her commentary pieces have been published in The Economics Observer (China), Hong Kong and Shenzhen Literary Review.

Xueting Christine Ni was born in Guangzhou, during China’s “re-opening to the West”. Having lived in cities across China, she emigrated with her family to Britain at the age of 11, where she continued to be immersed in Chinese culture, alongside her British education, realising ultimately that this gave her a unique a cultural perspective, bridging her Eastern and Western experiences. After graduating in English Literature from the University of London, she began a career in the publishing industry, whilst also translating original works of Chinese fiction. She returned to China in 2008 to continue her research at Central University of Nationalities, Beijing. Since 2010, Xueting has written extensively on Chinese culture and China’s place in Western pop media, working with companies, theatres, institutions and festivals, to help improve understanding of China’s heritage, culture and innovation, and introduce its wonders to new audiences. Xueting has contributed to the BBC, Tordotcom Publishing, and the Guangdong Art Academy. Her new book, Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction, which she as translated and edited, will be published by Solaris Books in November. Xueting currently lives in the suburbs of London with her partner and their cats, all of whom are learning Chinese.