by Jesse Gordon
Rod Park was most beautiful on Service Day. With the sycamore and
acacia bowing ever so gracefully to a gentle breeze tinged with lemon
and honeysuckle, with little church girls in summer dresses skipping
from bench to bench and offering peace flowers to whomever they met,
the promise of a pleasant afternoon was just enough to get the
weekend crowds out of their routines, out of their cubicles, out of
their houses and apartments.
DeHaven sat cross-legged on the grass and, sketchbook propped in his
lap, tried to capture a superficial scene of tranquility. He was
supposed to be relaxing, absorbing all the privileges of his
civilized lifestyle so that when he next checked in with his
head-doctor he would have a collection of sketched improvements as
proof of his gradual psychological evolution. Instead, he found
himself drawing the usual dark, morbid, foreboding things: Churches
on fire, homeless people laying half-dead in alleyways, vast cities
laid to waste by gargantuan mushroom clouds; he’d already
third of the pages in his book on the grotesque caricatures and
obscene pop images that, while perhaps counterproductive, were
spot-on representations of what he felt inside.
happy, he told himself. Look around, see everyone
and talking and laughing. For once in your life ignore that rotten
spot in your brain and come up with something that won’t make
editor want to shoot himself in the head.
up, he caught sight of a ruddy-faced little boy kneeling on a
patterned blanket and blowing bubbles while his mother unwrapped a
picnic lunch. James set his pencil in motion, rendered the boy in
tatters, his arms and legs caked with mud, blood, feces. Instead of a
picnic blanket, he sat on a scattering of food stamps. In his hands:
his mother’s severed head. Just above the head, a text bubble
read: “I’m no-body.”
have the muse.”
looked up again. A tall, willowy man dressed in white robes was
standing over him.
James said, shrugging, “though all too often I
don’t know what to
do with it.”
circuit chuckled amiably. “My name’s Lon. May I
arranged himself on the grass beside James, whose nostrils flared at
a most peculiar odor--an elusive sort of musk mixed with something
camphoric. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but it did set
senses ablaze, and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed the
before. Such folk were not at all uncommon on most Service Days, as
they dealt in propaganda, collecting donations, recruiting citizens
for community service. Though James had a habit of ignoring circuits
as he did door-to-door salesman or corner Liberty Fund collectors, he
usually knew whether or not there was one in his vicinity. This time,
however, he’d been taken quite by surprise.
fine afternoon,” said Lon. “May I have your
You’re an artist?”
nodded, prepared a brief list of dismissals, should the need arise.
“I work for Chroma Key. That is, when
I’m not sitting in
the park and wasting paper on doodles.”
mind needs an outlet,” Lon said, fixing his gaze on
sketchbook. “May I see?”
instinct was to politely refuse. Instead, he found himself yielding
to Lon’s request as he handed the sketchbook over. Lon
the beginning and studied James’ work with great attention,
page--and as Lon studied the sketchbook, James studied Lon, wondered
how much of the man’s appearance was merely cosmetic and how
was a physical manifestation of what was surely an angel or ghost in
human form. Lon was painfully pale, with the ash-colored hair and
long, elegant features that were typical of most Node workers. His
lips were blood-red, his eyebrows black as coal; the contrast was
can see you’ve been following a theme with your
work,” Lon said
after a time, handing back the sketchbook.
shrugged. “It’s my therapy. I’m supposed
to fill the entire
book with happy, cheery images before my next head-session.
at all,” said Lon. “I would say someone of your
make would have
been in far more trouble if he had filled his book
converse imagery. You would have been feigning ignorance.”
that to my editor,” James said, chuckling. “Blood,
guts, and gore
don’t fare too well when you’re trying to sell ad
space to sports
car manufacturers and cell phone companies.”
but conformity is often a far less effective method of recruiting
prospective customers, is it not?”
you say so.”
breath escaped Lon’s crimson lips--an echo of laughter.
pleasant and the unpleasant are two sides of the same coin, as they
say. Most individuals can justify their lifestyle by surrounding
themselves with material comforts, but others--a precious few these
days, I might add--will always feel the truth in suffering.”
would be me,” James said, sighing.
fell silent for a moment. Then, gazing at some minuscule point across
the lawn: “You come here often.”
shrugged. “On Service Day, mostly. It’s my way of
myself I’m still part of the team, as it were.”
seen you before, always alone, always brooding.”
wife’s the indoor type.”
chuckled again. “I am neither your psychiatrist nor an
you are here to recruit people. Me,
you’re averse to the Node’s function?”
it’s not that.” James kept his temper in check,
why he hadn’t noticed Lon before today. He didn’t
watched, studied, or even casually observed. “I get the
know more about me than I do about you.”
“Yes,” Lon said,
“one such as myself is privy to the city’s central
it isn’t your profile or your salary that’s
persuaded me to
sense a longing in you. You wish you’d joined the
enough, thought James, remembering the recent
shiny metal fighters moving across the sky in formation. “I
registered when I turned eighteen. I passed the physical just fine,
but they didn’t like my head.” He laughed and
tapped his finger
against one of his temples. “Manic depressive, they said. I
shipped right back home for pills and therapy. I met my wife during a
group session. Her name’s Carol; we’re miserable
said Lon. “While in close proximity to each other, you think
thoughts of a soldier, and she thinks the thoughts of a
can I say? You’ve seen my drawings.”
sighed, seemed to study James harder even though he was physically
looking the other way. “I see a misunderstood soul
with the residue of a dying mass consciousness. While other young men
and women have the privilege of ignorance, you’ve been
pacing the cage, unable to sleep alongside your brothers and
sisters--you are no ordinary citizen.”
swallowed, feeling a feather-touch somewhere deep inside himself.
“I’m no clairvoyant either.”
the work interests you.”
what sort of work, exactly?”
work,” Lon replied, facing James again.
accepting donations, handing out brochures--that sort of
approaching you as a prospective circuit, James. Surely the subject
matter of our conversation has revealed my ulterior motive by
supposed it had; he’d been unconsciously skirting the issue.
“Circuits are supposed to be the city-appointed stewards of
civilization’s most impure fallacies, the channels through
every last nightmare, sin, foul intention, and broken dream passes
before being processed by the Node’s alpha
telling me you get those kinds of recruits off the
hone in on citizens with a specific inclination towards the esoteric,
those with the gift of perception--and when we feel the time is
suddenly felt himself grow chilled as he blinked a few times, studied
Lon in an entirely new light. Every good citizen knew of the
existence, as well as its purpose. It was, however,
unpopular--physically stressful, even--to discuss the Node openly,
despite the fact that it was a socially-oriented institution, and
that every modern city had one.
should be afraid,” he said.
the opposite, Mr. DeHaven,” Lon said. “The Node
empowerment to its candidates--”
smile spread across Lon’s face. “Well,
we’re all recruits,
aren’t we? Components of the social machine. Most people are
busy or find it too painful to ponder such truths, but I think you
understand completely. I think you’ve understood all too well
past few years. The problem is, there are no job fairs, no want-ads
for the morbid, are there? We work to keep White Hall’s
presentation spotless, and someone such as yourself is relegated to
being an untapped commodity, suppressing your true nature day in and
day out as you try to convince those around you that you’re normal.
I can help--I can offer you a job.”
blurred James’ vision; he was trembling. “I...I
don’t know what
I said, there is no protocol for this sort of work, no resume to pad.
A circuit absorbs what the community rejects. We feed on the mental
and emotional refuse cast out by all the murderers, rapists,
politicians, holy men, scientists, doctors, teachers--I could go on
ad infinitum. You know what we do. You’ve absorbed your share
was true--James’ sketchbook was undeniable evidence.
up,” he said, “I was always under the impression
that the Node
was someplace you were sent if you hit rock-bottom, or if you broke
the law--it’s something to be afraid of.”
subtle laughter danced on the breeze. “Oh, there are stories,
then there are stories. Such is life. White Hall
may be the
largest city in the Western Quarter, devoid of crime and poverty, but
only because of regular maintenance performed by a select
you’ve selected me?”
an ordinary citizen, such an experience would be most unpleasant, but
for you...” Lon reached out and took James’ hand--
James nearly cried out in ecstasy as the onslaught washed over him, a
thousand images, sounds, flavors, smells, and sensations at a time.
For a brief instant, he was shoulder to shoulder, soul to soul with
fifty million citizens: He was a store manager contemplating how to
skim fifty dollars off a cashier’s terminal, a bank teller
the security cameras wouldn’t catch him and his girlfriend if
fornicated against the vault door; he was a closet-rapist thinking of
what to whisper into the ear of his first victim, a husband trying to
explain the scent of another woman’s perfume on his clothes,
politician breaking into a sweat during a press conference. He was
gout, he was influenza, he was the unchecked fungal infection running
rampant between the toes of an unfortunate construction worker. He
was anger, jealousy, fear, and suffering. He was every bad person,
every bad thing he’d ever wanted to be.
it was over, he was merely James again, sitting alone on the grass
with Lon’s business card in his hand, the faint camphoric
lingering in the air.
hadn’t noticed the circuit’s exit.
odor stayed with James throughout the rest of the day, which seemed
to progress in rapid succession, like stills in a slide show. One
moment he was gathering his things to leave the park, the next he was
sitting in a cafe on the corner of Citizen Street and Partisan and
half-heartedly poking at a salad. He sipped his tea, rolled a piece
of cucumber around in his mouth; his attention was focused solely on
the utterly spotless countertop, the ultra-polished eating utensils.
The place was too clean, without a doubt, the patrons enjoying
themselves entirely too much. Their smiles and polite conversations
made James feel like an oily excretion squeezed from an unsightly
was too much to bear, and so James dropped the remainder of his meal
into the trash dispenser, left the cafe and went for a walk along the
downtown promenade. He passed impeccable storefronts, moved alongside
seamless streets intersecting perfectly-isometric city blocks. White
Hall was filled to the brim with perfect objects and perfect people,
and though James was a member of this particular society, though he
was a citizen and therefore himself perfect, he did not feel at home.
Not in his community, not in his clothes, not in his skin. Even time
itself seemed to elude him as he wandered in a daze, looking at but
not talking to anyone as an after-lunch stroll turned into an
hours-long jaunt through the concrete design. When at last his legs
refused to carry him any further, he hailed a taxi.
me home,” he sighed, depositing himself into the passenger
waving his arm over the paybox. The reader scanned his personal
information and in no time the taxi was cruising along the various
side streets, giving him a replay of much of his day.
closed his eyes and felt his mind turn over. He shed time like a set
of clothes. One moment he was weightless, a disembodied spirit
contemplating the eternal expanse, the next he was once again packed
tight into matter--air, water, earth, steel girders flanking
vulnerable wood and concrete suburbs hidden in the shadow of the
city. Himself: flesh and bone, 5’10”, raven-haired
eagle-eyed, quivering to the touch, wrapped in bed sheets and pressed
against the warm, slick skin of his lover as he spilled himself.
Imagining a distinctive camphor in her hair, on her breath,
climax was a cosmic hiccup that brought about the most decadent
inversion of physical and emotional pleasure, a conglomerate of
broken dreams, lost wars, and monsters of science. The results
propelled him across an immeasurable divide, from Golden Rod on
Service Day to a deep morning hours afterward, chronologically, that
felt as if it were years ahead of where it should have been.
his wife, strung-out with the aftereffects of his uncommonly powerful
lovemaking, mumbled something about her affection towards him--but
her comments were lost in the background as James left the bed, went
into the bathroom to urinate.
at the mirror, he hardly recognized the face staring back at him, and
he wondered just where his day had gone, wondered if perhaps it had
been his reflection and not actually him
yesterday morning sitting in the park and talking to...someone. He
couldn’t quite remember. A friend, he thought; someone
cajoled him into going for a job interview at the Node, which seemed
strange because as far as James knew, it was only government
officials who worked there. Besides, he already had a job.
showered, and was ready to slip back into bed when his olfactory self
became alert to the camphoric odor he thought he’d lost to
His name had been Lon.
mumbled something in her sleep about his interview and drew the
sheets around herself.
glanced at the clock. It was quarter to one. He vaguely remembered
making an appointment for one-thirty as he threw on sweats and a
T-shirt, answered the door and found a beefy-looking brute on his
step. The man had a friendly face, but his overtly hulking frame gave
him the air of a hired goon. Like Lon, he had a potent odor about him
that his cologne was not entirely successful in masking.
do you do, Mr. DeHaven?” the goon said. “My
I’ve been instructed by the Alpha Circuit of White Hall to
you for an interview this morning.”
right, James thought. They said transportation
provided. He just hadn’t expected it to be in the
Franklin, carrying the unspoken promise: Cooperate, or
the crap out of you and carry you over my shoulder.
stepped back from the threshold as Franklin let himself in.
place,” Franklin said, adjusting his tie. “You an
blinked. Suddenly he was having trouble thinking in a linear fashion.
“What should I wear?”
shrugged. “Whatever’s comfortable.”
James gestured for Franklin to have a seat as he retreated into the
bedroom once again and rummaged in the closet for proper clothes. He
settled on jeans and a pullover.
Carol called from inside a wavering, translucent membrane that had
somehow come to encase the bed in the last few minutes.
almost one o’clock. Are you going to be late?”
frowned as he slipped into his pants, his shirt. Carol was sitting
up, stretching obliviously as the membrane completely shrink-wrapped
her bare body. So precise was the membrane that it fit perfectly,
conforming to her every curve and crevice. In a moment she was
indiscernible from before, though James knew if he touched her, he
would be touching that second skin and not actually her.
dream, he thought. I must still be at the park--or
home, dreaming I’m home. Maybe none of the above.
said, “I’m on time. Go back to sleep.”
blew him a kiss, yawned, and rolled onto her side. In no time flat
she was out cold.
was waiting patiently in the living room--three-hundred pounds of
goon stuffed into a double-breasted suit. James grabbed his jacket
and nodded wordlessly. Franklin led him from the apartment and down
to the driveway, where his car waited. Feeling more and more like the
victim of an abduction, James climbed into the passenger seat and
waited motionless as Franklin closed the door for him, went around to
the driver side and took up post behind the wheel. In a moment they
were off, out of the city and into the Graphite Glen wilderness.
turned on the radio, fiddling with the dial until he found a jazz
station. Then he reached somewhere beside his seat and produced a
candy bar. “Hungry?” he asked.
was nauseous, actually, but he nodded and took the candy anyway. His
hands shook as he tore open the wrapper and bit off a sizable chunk.
He chewed slowly, letting the chocolate-caramel slough off his
said Franklin. “What do you do, ah, during the day?”
a graphic artist,” James replied sullenly.
huh? I figured. Your apartment had that certain look to it. We
get many artists at the Node.”
imagined that was quite true. “How did you become a
I’m no circuit,” Franklin said.
“I’m an outside contractor.
Sort of an extended secretary, if you can believe it.” He
“I wouldn’t last ten seconds in the think
must think I’m a freak, then...I mean, to actually want
shook his head. “No, no. We all have to do what we have to
right? I was sort of a special case, like you. I got into some sticky
situations as a young man. As such, my employment options became
limited. The Node allows me to serve my community and
ensued for a few minutes--and then James, stuffing the last of the
candy bar into his mouth, heard himself asking, “What sort of
cologne are you wearing?”
issue,” Franklin responded. “Keeps me protected.
probably get something similar, only for the inverse--don’t
throw you, though. Most people around you won’t notice. Only
really sensitive ones.”
thought himself a “sensitive one,” as his head was
tingling, and had been ever since Franklin’s arrival on his
doorstep. It had been the same with Lon, who’d decimated the
with his mere presence. Now Franklin, bearing that exotic scent on
his clothing, had similarly bridged two adjacent dimensions, whisking
James into a second layer of reality hidden deftly beneath the one
he’d been born into. He was slipping and sliding in his skin,
much so that he hardly noticed the car ride was over until he was
standing at the foot of the White Hall Node steps and trying to get
his heartbeat to slow.
had the car idling. “You going to be okay?” he
over the passenger seat.
turned his back to the Node building (though he could still see the
broad, white facade in his mind’s eye). The air was crisp and
the sky starless. “Yeah.”
nodded, and was off. James watched him go. There was no gate, no
security--it wasn’t necessary. To anyone who passed close
the Node was simply too intense a concentration of dread. It was more
than enough merely attempting to visualize the
anyone actually tried to infiltrate, they ended up
terminally insane--cursory tidbits for the evening news.
a moment James merely stood there, motionless, and felt the
incomprehensible surge through him. Up close, the Node was an
enormous, towering structure--the very tip of an ultra-sensitive
nerve embedded deep in the Earth’s crust. He climbed the
steps--forty-two of them--and entered through the revolving door,
which opened into a long, narrow lobby flanked on both sides by a
dozen or so evenly-spaced chairs. The walls, the floor, the overall
veneer was pallid, and quite sterile.
the head of the lobby was the reception desk, behind which sat a
young woman dressed in white.
morning,” she said upon his approach. “How may I
cleared his throat. “I have a one-thirty
please?” asked the receptionist, hands suddenly poised over
computer terminal keyboard.
receptionist checked whatever database needed to be checked, then
nodded and rose from her seat.
way, please,” she said, gesturing to a door that James only
realized had been set into the otherwise seamless wall beyond the
followed the receptionist into a narrow, high-ceilinged corridor
that, as far as James could tell, stretched on into infinity. There
were unmarked doors on either side. He passed intersecting corridors
at regular intervals; each one seemed just as endless as the last,
making it difficult for him to gage the Node’s true size.
a time, the receptionist stopped in front of a door and, with a
quick, efficient flourish, waved it open. “An attendant will
with you shortly,” she said, ushering James inside.
remove your clothes and lay on the table. There’s a clothing
in the corner.”
nodded. Immediately the door swished shut and he was alone in a
sparsely-furnished examination room. As with the rest of the Node,
everything was smooth and seamless, white and sterile. There was no
stripped, hung his clothes on the rack, and lay flat on his back on
the table. Above, the ceiling was a faraway point lost in the
featureless geometry of the Node’s alien architecture. Light
to emanate from all around, walls, floor, and ceiling; the table was
chill against James’ skin, its antiseptic essence
natural scent of his body. He tried to count the minutes before he
realized there was someone else in the room with him--an attendant.
She was drawing blood from one of his arms; he couldn’t tell
one. He turned his head slightly to look at her, vaguely recalled
having heard the door open and close a moment ago. Or maybe it had
been several minutes, an hour; his mind was eluding him as it had on
a distant Service Day in the park...which one had it been? And
been the perpetrator, who’d cast his thoughts out into the
depths of space by allowing the merest hint of that enchanting musk
to escape from the fold of a billowy robe?
smell nice,” James said, thinking of old flowers, dried
nurse smiled politely as she worked. “Is your medical chart
date, Mr. DeHaven?”
I’m just running a few standard tests. I’ve also
given you a
booster shot, mostly pheromone inhibitors. The disorientation
experiencing is completely normal, and will wear off in a few short
minutes--at which time I will return to deliver you for your
nodded and watched the attendant as she left.
slipped from the table, reclaimed his clothes from the rack; he was
getting dressed when he felt something large and ominous shift around
him. He heard, felt, an almost audible groan as he
came to his senses, found himself reeling beneath the weight of an
door swished open and a third attendant stepped slightly inside.
DeHaven?” she asked.
snapped into a more placid posture. “Yes?”
attendant smiled. “This way, please.”
followed her out into the corridor, which was perfectly silent save
for the swish-swish of the attendant’s
clothing as she
started to lead him deeper into the labyrinth. However, after only a
handful of steps, she halted abruptly, put her hand to her ear (she
was wearing a subtle headset, he realized).
DeHaven?” she said, turning to face James as she conversed
whomever was on the other end of the line. “Why, yes.
now bringing him to screening room 316...yes. Yes, of course. Right
away.” She lowered her hand, addressed James:
“There’s been a
change of plan. If you’ll please follow me this
nodded and followed the attendant along a new route, which gradually
widened into a portal with a fortified vault door guarded by two
absolutely hulking men in matching security uniforms.
attendant nodded at the guards and tapped her headset again.
DeHaven, here to see Raiden.”
loud click sounded, followed by the vibration of heavy machinery as
the vault opened, revealing a descending corridor beyond.
glanced at the attendant, who’d retreated several steps. It
obvious she wouldn’t be accompanying him past this point.
a deep breath, he stepped into the corridor, followed it down into an
extremely wide and low-ceilinged chamber that was plain and much like
all the other Node rooms James had seen, with one major difference:
the walls. They sloped inward and were riddled with an intricate
network of niches and channels through which water steadily flowed,
collecting in a gutter that ran along the room’s perimeter.
circuits (dressed much like Lon had been) were dispersed throughout
and were meticulously tending to the various channels or niches with
fine pen-like instruments. There was a heavy smell of camphor in the
air--the Node scent, though now when James inhaled it, his thoughts
cleared instead of scattering. The many Node chambers, he realized,
were layers, hulls wrapped around a central entity. That entity was
in the next room; James could feel it. The walls could barely contain
it--it oozed and wept. Were it not for the circuits’ tireless
ministrations, it would have burst forth and corroded all of White
Hall (and, quite possibly, the entire Western Quarter) long ago.
wanted to touch it, to bury himself within its essence and sleep for
a thousand years dreaming its nightmares. Seeking an avenue into the
adjacent chamber, he spotted an arched doorway that shimmered opaque.
No one paid him any mind as he crossed the water-chamber and stepped
through the doorway--and when he was through, when the frigid
ambrosia of melancholy and pain washed over him like a colossal tidal
wave consuming an entire coastline in one fell swoop--
knew he’d found heaven.
I am Raiden, Alpha Circuit of White Hall.”
realizing his eyes were shut until he opened them, James found
himself standing in a room that had somehow acquired the unique
property of being simultaneously empty and full.
wavered, seemed to be paper-thin, as if James might be able to peel
away a layer of the wall to reveal any number of chaotic
possibilities. Raiden, the centerpiece, was a presence that James was
only able to perceive a piece at a time: ash-blond hair, long and
straight; smooth, pale skin assembled in a puzzle-piece pattern over
long, sinewy arms and legs; black eyes, brown eyes, crystal, red; a
whisper right beside James’ ear, the rustle of rotten leaves
dead insect carcasses.
my rather elusive appearance,” said Raiden, switching to the
impression of a hand on James’ shoulder, “but it is
easier for you to experience my essence in measured doses.”
cleared his throat. “Is this my interview?”
a manner of speaking.” A needle pinprick, blood staining
echo of someone long ago and far away moaning in agony.
there is an interview process, questions and answers, sensitivity
tests, but you have caught my attention.”
operating table materialized nearby; James walked over to it and saw
himself, emaciated and covered with bedsores. He stuck his finger
into one rather nasty abscess and said, “All my life
like I was the only one who was truly awake, while everyone around me
was in a daze. Thinking the things I did, wanting
knew there was this whole underworld filled with all the gross,
disgusting ideas no one else had the heart to explore. I was so cut
off, all the time, because I couldn’t share my interests with
people. They all wanted shiny little toy ideals packaged in neat
little boxes. Until now I thought I’d have to spend my entire
suppressing it, pretending it wasn’t there.”
understand,” said Raiden. “I have felt you these
decades, has it been?”
agony withheld, wasted. I would have liked to meet you years ago, but
Lon spoke the truth when he approached you in the park. We recruit
when the time is right. You merely needed the right place and the
right time to make the affirmative decision. You have
felt a fluttering gaze hitting him from behind. He turned just as the
vague shape of something supremely grotesque darted into the safety
of his peripheral vision. “I’m yours.”
enthusiasm is admirable, but you must know that I am uninterested in
loyalty for the sake of loyalty. Much of what you are feeling is a
psychotropic response to an external stimulus. The pheromone
inhibitors allow you a window of clarity, but the majority of your
work here will require you to endure long periods of delta-state
psychosis, much like what you experienced during your
know,” James said, and closed his eyes, remembering--savoring.
now the afterthought of a wounded soldier limping through a field of
mutilated corpses, seemed pleased. “There are not many like
The work we do here is often misunderstood. Necessary, but ridiculed,
shunned entirely by some quarters. They do not understand the
consequences of overpopulation. Too many minds, too many conflicting
thoughts--an utter cacophony. For the most part, though, if you
walked down any of White Hall’s fine streets, you would not
clue as to the gravity of the situation.”
James said, “you’re one of us.”
We have a boon, a responsibility. You see, civilization is allowed to
exist because the collective consciousness has no notion of its own
impending demise. There have been various alternate histories put
forth on the subject. For our purposes, the Four Quarters were
founded not by industry and real estate players, but by a group of
clandestine wartime consultants. Psychics, remote viewers,
metaphysicists. I was part of the new military innovation, and was
commissioned to head one of many new community districts. I, and
others like me, are aware that the human race long ago exceeded the
numbers allowable for a sustainable population--but I can absorb the
dread, replacing it with hope, vision, and the regenerative spirit
that once flourished on this world. The excess is preserved without
the need for genocide.
all communities agree on the solution, however. Many consider Node
work to be merely mass hypnosis--hence various wars, as well as the
proliferation of rogue communities in the No-Zones. Nevertheless,
White Hall’s citizens retain their precious ignorance thanks
dedicated few who are in the know. Soldiers are told the truth before
they are sent to die. Certain holy men know, so that they may direct
their members’ prayers to whatever god is listening. My
know, and they willingly accept the mental waste of every last man,
woman, and child of White Hall. Together we provide the means for
smiled. The outlook was grim indeed--it filled him with a sense of
purpose. Life as he knew it was a festering wound, and he was being
allowed to assess the damage.
approval was a puff of acrid breath ejected from a gaping mouth full
of rotten teeth. “It has been a pleasure to meet you. The
will be taken care of. In the meantime I will have someone direct you
to your interview. Welcome aboard, Mr. DeHaven.”
found only the first few days as a Node employee to be disconcerting.
Schedule-wise, he was able to adjust without trouble, as the work was
done almost exclusively in the delta brain state. His body was unable
to differentiate between regular sleep and Node sleep, and so he got
the rest he needed while simultaneously performing his duties as a
White Hall circuit.
Chroma Key, his coworkers were none the wiser as to
secret life. In fact, they warmed to him with an affinity unheard of
in times past. His associates asked to share assignments with him;
his editor worked with him, not around
him. He could
walk into a room and instantly all the unsavory flecks and motes of
emotion would cling to him, leaving their former owners clean and
pure. People would compliment his new cologne (though no one was able
to place the brand or fragrance). Women loved him, wanted to be
around him—some just him.
shiny new social status was an unexpected side effect which, Lon
explained during a think tank session one night, was quite common,
and perfectly normal, as entry-level circuits were primarily sponges,
collectors of community waste to be sent off to the Node. It was only
later in one’s career that the deeper, more physically
task of processing memories (which, unlike intentions, had already
been embedded in the brain pattern) became accessible--at which point
the body reacted by becoming pale, ashen...almost ghostlike.
outside at last revealing the inside.
initial exercises were simple: a young boy plotting to steal one of
his brother’s favorite toys; an office employee calculating
many of her orders she could half-ass before her group’s
suffered; a family man considering the various consequences of
dipping into his savings account for a stereo system he
really need. In each case, James merely had to absorb the foul
intention as it percolated in the respective person’s
This was done in the dreamstate, in a think tank environment much
like the examination room James had initially visited, except here
the tables were padded comfortably, and the circuits got to wear
their street clothes. A handful of nurses kept tabs on everyone.
first, Carol responded to James in sync with everyone else. She
exhibited a cheerfulness and sense of well-being whenever she was
around him. All her fears and frustrations were absorbed by his
essence, and so she was never upset, never angry, never too
unbalanced that she wasn’t in the mood to talk over dinner
to James’ delight, make love.
came her episode.
woke up just before dawn, found that Carol wasn’t in bed with
him--which was okay, as she often got up early to shower or to start
breakfast. Still, there was no mistaking the unsightly smudge of
something dark and ugly emanating from close by--something that
shouldn’t have been.
got up, put on a pair of sweatpants. He had no memory of returning
from the Node--some mornings he did, some he didn’t--and so
sure if Carol had even been home upon his arrival. He felt her now,
though, and he knew something was terribly, terribly wrong.
trail of festering misery led into the kitchen. Carol was there,
tucked haphazardly into the corner. Her nightgown was stained,
the stains were just coffee, James rushed to her side.
What’s the matter? Baby--”
shrieked at his touch, pushed him away. “Get away, get
flinched at the intensity of her outburst. She rippled with bad
vibes--it gave him an instant (albeit unwanted) erection.
he said, and backed off slightly. “What’s the
bit her lip and fixed her gaze on the floor. There were dark circles
around her eyes--she looked as if she hadn’t slept a wink all
night. “I kept having nightmares, one after the other, over
over. When I woke up, you were gone--I looked for a note...”
trailed off, her voice caught in her throat.
was at work,” James said. “Overtime--”
reached behind her back, produced a piece of paper--
read it all,” she sobbed, a fresh stream of tears moistening
crust on her cheek. “Is it true? Are you one of
took the contract and pretended to skim over the text as he scrambled
to think of how to handle the situation. Carol shouldn’t have
known. The cologne should have masked any suspicious pheromones, kept
her from sensing his bad side--but there had also been instructions
to physically conceal any references to the Node. (Why hadn’t
he done a better job of it?) The simple act of discovering a mislaid
document had devastated Carol, and now she wouldn’t touch
wouldn’t even look at him.
doesn’t know, he reminded himself. Not
distraught, frantic emotions and citizen stereotypes of what the Node
is, what it’s for. She just needs to calm down.
told her just that, tried to embrace her again as he reassured her it
was all in her head--she would have none of it.
doesn’t matter what you say,” she said, holding
herself. “I can
feel it...it’s all over you. Your look, your smell, the sound
your voice...I don’t know why I didn’t notice
membrane. My God, James. I can feel it. It’s supposed to be
completely breathable, nano-thin, but I can feel
it, like I’m
shrink-wrapped. You let them screw with me. It’s been almost
week. How long were you going to let this go on
telling me? How...how could you do such a thing? Willingly?”
sighed. “It’s not me you’re feeling.
It’s everyone else. All
their sins and nightmares. I’m still the same man I was last
He reached out to touch Carol’s cheek when suddenly she
her eyes shut and started shrieking.
touch, don’t touch!”
Please, calm down! The neighbors--”
to the neighbors!” Carol pushed James away, started kicking
“What do you care anyway? You’re not even human
stumbled to his feet, backed into the table hard enough that a small
flurry of papers were sent fluttering to the floor--his Node files.
Carol had obviously found his not-so-well-hidden portfolio, and now
everything was all over and getting trampled as she continued to
scream and flail her arms and legs--
was too much. Her emotions were raw and electric. With an instinctive
lunge, James dropped his pants and availed himself of the excess.
With every kiss, every touch, every thrust, Carol gave up an
affliction, one after the other, yelping, moaning, gasping, and,
finally, merely trembling all over with the power of an extended
climax that didn’t subside until after she’d lost
withdrew, held her for a moment, made sure she still had a pulse and
was still breathing--then he broke down and cried. He’d
entirely too much pleasure from the experience. He couldn’t
certain if he’d done it to alleviate Carol’s
suffering or to
satisfy his own insatiable lust for all that was displeasing.
a while, he wrangled his emotions and, hefting Carol in his arms,
stood up. The place was a mess--Carol and himself were a mess. He
carried her to the bedroom, carefully laid her down and drew the
sheets around her. Without a clue as to how long it would be before
she woke up, or what her mental condition would be, he returned to
the kitchen and called the Node. After explaining the situation, he
was informed that a circuit would be dispatched immediately
short while later, Lon showed up. Wordlessly, James let him in and
directed him to where Carol lay laughing in her sleep.
can we do?” James asked.
placed his hand against Carol’s forehead, and instantly she
settled. “You’ve abated the worst. Let her sleep it
should be fine when she wakes up. You might want to take the
afternoon off from work, though, so you can keep an eye on
isn’t an exact science,” said Lon, standing again
sympathetically. “Sometimes this sort of thing happens,
a loved one with a close emotional connection. We do what we can with
the precautions, but sometimes reactive episodes are unavoidable. The
important thing is to make sure there is nothing that could trigger a
relapse.” He glanced around the room. “I suggest
arrangements to store all Node-related paperwork externally--perhaps
in a safe-deposit box. Any digital copies should be inconspicuously
named and kept in an encrypted folder.”
nodded and watched Carol sleep. “What about the membrane? She
psychological effect. The membrane is necessary, else there is the
risk you would overwhelm her at the slightest touch. As long as
there’s nothing to trigger her suspicions, she
notice--but what about you? Are you going to be all right?”
suppose.” James let out a long, slow breath. Things had been
so well; he’d finally been able to become the man
dreamed of becoming, and Carol hadn’t displayed the slightest
negative symptom--and now suddenly, from one day to the next....
showed Lon out, then sat by Carol’s side for the rest of the
Last night her essence had been fresh and ripe, the day’s
mental blemishes delightfully varied as he’d plucked them
mind. Now, however, she was barren. He’d drained her
would be days before her stores replenished themselves.
a while, he went into the kitchen and phoned work, set himself to
tidying up the apartment. He collected his Node files and stored his
portfolio in his briefcase; later, he told himself, when Carol was up
and about, he would get himself a safe-deposit box. For the time
being, he paced and puttered.
lunchtime, he went out onto the balcony, where he was presented with
a splendid view of White Hall’s urban mosaic. Everything
polished, glistening, perfect; he felt as if he might leave trails of
soot wherever his feet came into contact with the floor, wherever he
rested his arms or hands--yet he knew it was the other way around. It
was the city that was dirty, he
the pristine filter
through which all the excess flowed.
was early evening when Carol at last came awake, yawning and
stretching and looking at James as if he were the
been sleeping all day.
look out of it,” she said, matter-of-factly.
had been sitting on the bedroom floor, but now he moved onto the bed
and put his arm around her. “I was worried about
you,” he said.
“Are you feeling all right?”
course I am,” she replied, looking at him with a placid
wanted to ask her if she remembered anything, but, fearing a relapse,
he merely made small talk instead. For the most part, she was
the most part.
Chroma Key party was on a Wednesday.
brought Carol along, introduced her to the staff, and a good time was
had by all--except Carol. She mingled, talked, and laughed in a
manner befitting the magazine’s tenth anniversary, but James
her display was superficial. She played the part of the supportive
wife, but it was only a part, a role--it had been that way all week.
He watched her throughout the evening, kept his mind oriented on her
thoughtpool; it was like pressing against a latex mold, skin
stretched over nothing.
got her alone at one point and asked (for the umpteenth time since
her episode) if she was all right.
having a wonderful time,” she said, and kissed him dutifully
seem distant,” he said.
I?” Carol slipped into his arms, deftly tapped his butt when
was looking. “How about now?”
laughed. “My mistake. Trick of the light, I guess.”
He kissed her
again and let her go, watched as she blended effortlessly into the
night, when they made love, Carol lay flat on her back and stared off
into the distance, her face perfectly serene throughout. Were it not
for the physical manifestations of her climax, James would not have
known if she’d felt even the slightest bit of pleasure at
alarming, however, was the fact that not once did she cast off any
mental indications of her passion, a thought, an emotion--something
to let him know there was a spirit dwelling within his wife’s
became months, and Carol’s condition continued to atrophy.
days James would come home and find her sitting at the kitchen table
or upright in bed and staring dreamily at the wall. She was empty,
James knew it--he’d overcompensated, scrubbed her mind raw
she’d been at her most vulnerable, and now he was living with
shadowy reflection of what had once been a complete soul. It was
unbearable to watch her go through her daily routine disconnected,
completely out of touch with everyone and everything.
focused on his work. As the season shifted, and summer became autumn,
so did he shift from entry-level circuit to mid-level circuit. At
this level, the thoughtpool was larger, more expansive. James and his
associates were able to seed thoughts in citizen minds rather than
simply remove them--which was quite useful considering the nature of
mid-level work. Instead of merely diffusing the city’s
mental time bombs, James was now helping to reroute the circumstances
leading up to various crises (after all, crime was nonexistent when
no one had the motive to break the law).
insight came naturally. Instead of mere hints or notions pertaining
to the layout of a person’s mind, he could actually see
memories and intentions. It was both a blessing and a curse, because
with insight came the need to differentiate between dreams of what
had been, what would be, and what the dreamer wanted
happen--but it was a far more effective method of communicating, as
James was able to directly manipulate the mental objects and symbols
that represented a person’s thought patterns.
he couldn’t resist using his new skills on Carol, and did so
evening before his delivery to the Node. Laying beside her, he put
himself into a light sleep. In the dreamstate, Carol’s
was a gaping depression in an otherwise level plane of consciousness.
James dipped inside--and what he found disturbed him, for most
people’s thoughts radiated outward in multiple layers and
threaded together by an intricate network of vivid pathways, bridges,
boulevards, roadways, tracks, and trails. Carol’s mind, by
contrast, was contained entirely within a single room, a decrepit
gallery completely devoid of furnishings. In the center of the room,
Carol, naked, lay curled up on her side on the splintered floor. Her
porcelain-smooth skin was pale and goose-bumped from the oppressive
care not to disturb her, James browsed the gallery, which was piled
high with framed pictures stacked, strewn about, balanced
precariously upon one another. Each picture contained a certain
specific scene, a static representation of a memory, a hope, a wish,
a dream--but Carol herself wasn’t dreaming. She was merely
collecting, ordering her dreams in a haphazard
so, with nowhere to go, they accumulated, taking up more and more
receded, his essence distilling itself back into his body. He lay
motionless beside Carol and stared at the ceiling, tears making his
vision liquid. That’s no way to live, he
thought. No way
cried for several minutes, until Carol stirred--at which point he
spooned her from behind, resting his chin on her shoulder. She was
warm, soft, and he could feel her pulse. The night light cast a
subdued sheen over her skin; James could see a hint of something
her close, he whispered, “Oh, Carol. The world is one big
nightmare, isn’t it?”
memory of Carol’s mental gallery haunted James for weeks.
was quite infuriating: He was a circuit--he made a living absorbing
other people’s fallacies, and yet he couldn’t help
she wasn’t living any of her own. Oh, she had a surplus, but
all objective; whenever he tried working on her, he was only able to
glean the portraits of her thoughts and not the
so he suffered.
of how to rectify the situation often resulted in long periods of
counter productivity at Chroma Key, where everyone
seemed blissfully unaware of the intricate workings of existence.
James’ thoughtpool sessions were a temporary reprieve during
he could gorge himself on the trials and tribulations of others while
staving off his own, but eventually he knew he was going to run out
of ways to dodge the inevitable.
situation was not unique. Looking over his Node files one evening, he
discovered that while many circuits who worked at the Node were
husband and wife teams, there were also a number of people whose
spouses had nothing to do with the Node. In such cases, physical
separation was the solution of choice, as there was a lesser
likelihood of a reactive episode if the instigator--the Node
employee--wasn’t always in close proximity to the citizen.
Supposedly, many a couple had healthy, beneficial relationships in
such a manner.
read on, found a section covering the membrane. In any modern city,
the alpha circuit had a metaphysical influence over a specific
radius--a medium for the sending and receiving of citizen
thoughts--and could place “filters” on individuals
special attention. This led James to believe that perhaps
condition was merely the result of how Raiden’s system worked
inside the radius. But outside, and without
influence, the membrane would dissolve or, at the very least, weaken
to a sufficient point where Carol could once again connect properly
with the world around her.
leaned back in his chair and took a slow, deep breath. The thought of
leaving White Hall was simultaneously terrifying and inspiring.
Outside, there was no civilization; there were no rules, no
carefully-constructed domiciles. Everything was tribal, growing
own food, making one’s own clothes, scavenging for resources,
electricity, no medicine--and there was the emotional factor, too. A
large part of James’ well-being was dependent upon
abundant mental wastes. Leaving White Hall would be like cutting
solid foods from his diet. Of course, there was bound to be anguish
in a No-Zone as well, but there was little chance it could match the
intensity of fifty million citizens’ entangled dreams. The
benefit would be Carol’s chance at improvement.
forward, James rested his arms against the tabletop. He could feel
Carol asleep in the bedroom, and he imagined her mind puttering
around the lifeless gallery--he knew he was putting himself first by
should have done something that first week.
at the clock, he saw that it was nearing midnight; he had an hour
before he had to leave for the Node. He left the kitchen and went
into the living room, where he lay down on the sofa and closed his
eyes. Dreamstate came readily, and in a moment he was adrift--but
instead of gravitating towards the White Hall epicenter, he drifted
outward, away from the city’s light and warmth--
the city limits, human minds came and went in flickers, pockets of
hope and despair in an otherwise barren landscape. The emotions were
all uneven, varied--no uniformity at all. There was passion, anger,
love, hate, fear, jealousy; no emotion was too raw or improper, no
matter what the age, sex, or race of the individual, and though the
quarry was spread out, the payoff held promise, as it had never
before been tapped by circuit minds.
from mind to mind, filching a memory here, a memory there, James
spied rolling plains speckled with pine, spruce, cypress, windswept
deserts pock marking the Earth like gaping wounds, and jagged peaks
piercing the sky in prime examples of tectonic agony. Where White
Hall was uniform in design, the No-Zones were cacophonous. Nothing
polished, nothing predictable. There was a different kind of
suffering here in the sprawling isolation--it wasn’t the
suffocating effect of too many citizens crammed into too small a
space and trying to relieve the pressure at any given chance, it was
too few people trying to fill the void with
anything. It was endless silence broken occasionally by muffled
laughter, snarled insults, unheard calls for help, stifled moans of
man, his wife and two children lived in a small house surrounded by
vegetable fields. James entered the man’s mind and traveled
day’s experiences, working, sweating, ignoring the chronic
pain as, his son at his side, he harvested carrots, radishes,
potatoes. At sundown, his wife and daughter waited on the porch with
dinner; the day’s labor went unspoken as together the family
watched night fall over the valley.
tomorrow it will begin all over again.
shifted viewpoints, settling into the son’s mind. He found
and his sister squatting beside a meager river and working to fill a
pair of buckets with water. They were almost done when he heard his
sister cry out, a water spider crawling up her arm. Such a
he thought as she froze and screamed for him to get it off. He
laughed, calling her “baby” as he moved to flick
insect back into the water--but the spider dodged his hand and jumped
onto his sister’s shoulder. Before he could react, the spider
started spewing out an impossible abundance of silk as it netted
James’ head, his mind-
an early start, I see.”
blinked, found he was standing in Raiden’s Node chamber.
down at himself, he saw he was still wearing the boy’s body;
were muddy prints beneath his bare feet. “I...I was
just...browsing,” he said, and tried unsuccessfully to shake
costume. “I was in the mood for a little variety.”
shifted beside him, a small fleet of spider legs probing the back of
James’ neck. “Interesting choice. Was the city not
was. I just...had some time to kill. It seemed like an interesting
place to go.”
imagine,” said Raiden, “a No-Zone would
be an interesting
place to go...but alas, we work for the city. Those who dwell
without...must do without.”
you long for something. You are...unsatisfied.”
swallowed. “I...my wife--she’s been ill. She
very well at all to my new position here at the Node.”
see--and you feel that perhaps by searching without, you can glean
said nothing. He knew Raiden could sense his thoughts regardless, and
for the first time since becoming a Node employee, James
want the insight. At least, not when he was the
twitch of the eye, a burp of slow-moving water, and James found
himself back at the riverside, except now everything was inverted,
the landscape crusted with disease and decay. James looked down and
saw the mud oozing bright yellow pus beneath the weight of his feet.
recognize yourself, do you not?” Raiden asked.
looked up and saw himself--or, rather, he saw a pseudo James DeHaven,
a zombie James DeHaven, a half-rotten corpse Raiden had unearthed
from one of James’ worst nightmares--standing at the
edge. He wore James’ skin like a suit of clothes, and even
full turn to showcase mottled calves and legs, dimpled buttocks
splitting at the seams, back and shoulders riddled with lesions.
stirred in James, an unexpected revulsion. “In a nightmare,
perhaps,” he said.
nodded. “This is how Carol sees you. Her emotional recession,
as it may be, is a defense mechanism. She can function normally, day
to day, but this is how she will always see you,
now that she
knows the truth. Inside or out, you are the same man. That will never
unless I want it to,” James said, softly.
but you forget your responsibilities. If you leave White Hall, will
it be for the good of the city? Will it in any way, shape, or form
add to the quality of life of your fellow citizen?”
bit his lip. “Carol is my wife. I love her.”
is one woman,” said Raiden, stepping close, assaulting
senses with an amalgam of death and decay. “Your wife, your
yes, but...when you took this job you were willing to sacrifice the
self for the whole.”
course--but I made that decision, not Carol. She
are ways of coping. The membrane will hold. There is medication
available to deal with the social lag--and there are other solutions.
Carol and yourself have not had children...there would be few ill
consequences in the case of a separation.”
divorce?” James shook his head. “That’s
not an option. For
other circuits, maybe, but not for me.”
severe look came over Raiden’s pseudo-face. “You
want to leave
James hadn’t yet decided.
away will solve nothing,” Raiden said. “You will
once again be
making a decision on Carol’s behalf, without her
course, you must know that once a citizen leaves White Hall, his ID
chip is flagged. He cannot come back.”
shrugged, trying hard to mask his emotions, to think in roundabout
ways. “Maybe that’s how it’s got to
chuckled. “For some, perhaps, but for you it is not that
You see, there is the matter of your contract. Node work is extremely
difficult, open only to a select few who meet the steep requirements.
Losing a single circuit places a huge burden on the rest of the team.
And, knowing what you know, there is always the chance you might
spread unsavory rumors concerning our work here. I cannot allow you
to leave. Not at this time.”
course, thought James. The city. The Node. My
Loyalty, perseverance, dedication, and all that. It would be selfish
to up and leave simply because of a few rough edges. He
Raiden for a moment, felt him through and through. There were rooms
with the windows sealed up, boxes and crates wrapped in sturdy
chains, locked doors behind which something infinitely unpleasant
lurked--the frothy cesspool that had drawn James to the Node in the
first place. It was a unique feeling: He wanted to throw himself over
the brink and avail himself of Raiden’s malevolent stores,
also wanted to run screaming from what he knew Raiden could do to him
if he went astray.
said Raiden, now embracing James as a father might his son.
all trapped within our circumstances. However, some of us have the
good fortune of being able to see the truth. You are privileged,
James. I don’t turn on my circuits--but, then, I
don’t allow them
to turn on me either. Remember that.”
kissed James on the forehead--and he came awake, gasping, choking,
caught in a sticky, fetid warmth that blotted out air, light, sound.
He thrashed with his arms and legs, and, in a painfully inefficient
manner, extricated himself from what he realized to be a life-sized
cocoon encasing him from head to toe. Once his hands were freed, he
desperately peeled away the muck from his face, coughed up green
mucous; when at last he was able to breathe normally again, he rolled
off the sofa and onto his hands and knees, taking great swallows of
air and doing his best not to vomit. The living room floor was
covered with bits of torn flesh--the zombie-James, transferred from
dreamstate to reality. Raiden had encased him inside the nightmare
body and sent him home to reevaluate his priorities.
James caught himself thinking. Impressive.
arrived at the Node without a plan--which was just as well,
considering that Raiden might have caught on prematurely had James
himself known what he wanted to do about his situation before
actually doing it.
first instinct was to play it safe and perform his circuit duties in
the normal fashion, and so he joined the others in think tank and
went to work--but his mind inevitably wandered, his focus fragmented,
and numerous times he found himself in the wrong thoughtpool
he made it through the night without drawing attention to himself. At
the usual time, just before dawn, he was delivered home again, this
time, coincidentally, by Franklin.
time no see,” James said as they were off.
time no see, Mr. DeHaven,” Franklin replied, smiling.
rode together in silence, James unwilling to talk, Franklin unwilling
to prod his passenger.
they arrived at James’ apartment, he got out of the car and
“Thanks for the ride.”
problem, Mr. DeHaven.”
out of curiosity, what if you came to pick me up one morning and I
refused to go with you?”
I’d have to knock you out and take you in
laughed (Franklin too); it was a nervous sort of sound, polite and
yet affrontive. “Just asking,” he said, and stepped
away from the
car. “Have a good day, Frank.”
too, Mr. DeHaven.”
drove away, and for a good long while James remained standing in the
driveway. Part of him wanted to go inside and check on Carol, but he
already knew what he would find.
he went for a walk, and was hit by a pang of deja vu as he recalled a
Service Day long ago and far away when he’d gone on a similar
excursion. He thought he should somehow feel different, better,
now that he’d had the time to acknowledge the truths
for years and years. He didn’t.
smiling faces, receiving cheerful salutations, James knew it all to
be nothing more than the subtle presentation of civilized illusions.
The subdued sheen of the membrane had never been more obvious than it
was now, hiding beneath a jogger’s sweat, a woman’s
child’s rosy glow. James knew his fellow citizens were
unaware of their condition; they were rattling around inside the
White Hall machine and inadvertently feeding the dreams of a ravenous
had rented a car, packed his bags, and was gently lifting Carol out
of bed when he realized he’d come to a decision--or perhaps
known all along and had merely been keen enough to keep his thoughts
closed, lest Raiden catch on prematurely.
made it to the car, and was strapping Carol into her seat when a
familiar voice sounded inside his head:
is rather unprofessional.
stirred, glancing matter-of-factly at James. “Are we late for
breakfast menu or something?”
a surprise,” James replied, and shut the door--
realize this is a breach of protocol.
around to the driver’s side and got behind the wheel.
will almost certainly ruin your career.
gritted his teeth and started the car, pulled onto the street. As he
drove, he imagined he was a red blood cell racing along one of
Raiden’s arteries, to be expelled through a gushing wound.
imagery. I always did have an affinity for your mind, James. You
genuinely enjoyed your work here. You would have done it for free,
were it not for the basic necessities--or should I say nuisances?--of
recalled a city map he’d studied covertly during his walk and
worked out the quickest route to White Hall’s eastern border.
truly is a shame. I invited you into my inner sanctum--you were the
first in a long while. I thought you understood what it meant to be a
citizen of White Hall. I see I was greatly mistaken...still, you
haven’t crossed the border yet. You can turn around.
around, James, before it’s too late.
pushed every extraneous thought from his mind and concentrated on the
road, and, whether through perseverance or just plain old luck, was
able to tune Raiden out completely for the next several minutes. He
glanced over at Carol at regular intervals; she looked so peaceful,
curled up in her blanket and resting her head against her pillow. He
imagined her waking up outside the city, imagined himself grinning
foolishly and dancing around in circles as he proclaimed their
newfound freedom--he wondered if she would praise him or punch him in
suburbs gradually thinned, giving way to White Hall’s
farmlands. Here, the human presence was sporadic. James caught a
thought here, an idea there; it was the first time he’d
traveled close to the city border, and he found the experience to be
mellow, almost relaxing--so much so that he didn’t see the
standing in the middle of the road until it was almost too late.
Letting out a stifled exclamation, James slammed his foot on the
break and swerved the car onto a soft shoulder.
jolted awake as they came to a shuddering stop. “Christ,
think you could offer up a little warning the next time you decide to
switch to off-road-mode?”
ignored her; he was far more concerned about having possibly plowed
right over some poor citizen. “Wait here,” he said,
be right back.”
left the engine running and exited the car, stepped out onto the
road, which appeared deserted. He walked a short distance from the
car, scanning the foliage for an arm, a leg, a torso, and finding
nothing. No one.
he thought, neck-hairs suddenly bristling. He turned around--
found himself face to face with a tall, husky man wearing overalls
and a bandanna.
farmer. He was carrying a garden hoe.
let out a sigh. “Geez, for a moment there I thought
answer, the farmer lifted his hoe and swung it at James. The metal
blade made a sickening noise as it struck the top of James’
sending shards of pain, bolts of lightning through him. He fell to
the ground, his senses reeling in agony, everything fusing together
the wrong way as somewhere nearby a familiar odor infiltrated his
you know what happens when a circuit burns out?” he heard the
tried to open his eyes, but everything seemed so bright, so sharp
that his eyelids sealed themselves shut out of desperation.
me show you, then.”
smiled--James didn’t have to look to see the wicked grin
him whole as the marionette-farmer grabbed him by the neck and hauled
him to his feet. Rough fingers pulled at James’ eyelids,
them open. His vision was blurred, blotted, save for two focal
points: the farmer’s eyes. They sizzled and crackled with
electricity. Tiny tendrils lashed out at James, tearing through his
clothes and binding him, spread-eagle, by ankles and wrists. In an
instant he was suspended in mid-air, the road, the backcountry
dissolving like smoke and revealing an entirely new scene in which he
was shackled naked to a specially-fitted frame that had been placed
at the head of a courtroom. The jury box was occupied by a variety of
men and women, all of whom wore grim, frightened expressions on their
pair of robed men (James recognized them from the Node) appeared on
James’ right side. They’d brought with them a small
a collection of wicked-looking scalpels and knives.
citizens will know you,” came Raiden’s voice, soft
and gentle, on
James’ left. He’d taken on the form of a young man
hair and slender, almost androgynous features--the afterimage of the
body he’d once had, or perhaps a composite of all his
bodies, for though he was whole, complete, his skin was heavily
seamed--as if he were a puppet sewn together from various other
will despise you,” Raiden continued, pacing slowly back and
before James. “They will watch you suffer, and they will see
joy you receive from it...and they will shun the very memory of you
for having to watch your death.” He stopped, stepped in close
brushed the back of his hand against James’ cheek.
will be integrated into the mass consciousness. You will become an
affection that cannot be shaken or cured--but all is not lost. You
understand how the system works. Their hatred becomes my joy. The
cycle repeats itself.”
felt a sharp sting as one of Raiden’s assistants made an
incision in his upper arm. One of the women screamed at the first
sign of blood.
abomination,” Raiden said slowly, closing his eyes.
“Give me your
agony--let me drink ’till the last drop.”
incision was made, and James gasped. The pain was exquisite; he knew
he was going to be carved to pieces an inch at a time, and he both
loathed and lauded the prospect.
Raiden said, waving his arm at the jury, whose eyes unwillingly
became glued on the podium. “They want to look away, but they
compelled to watch. The loving husband, the proper wife...”
felt himself sighing inwardly. Even in the midst of all the pain
there were slivers of pleasure, his true nature summoning itself from
he thought, scrunching his eyes shut, but still unable to hold back
the tears. Not my shame but Raiden’s. He
wants me to feel
this way. He’s twisting my mind to make it happen according
design. This isn’t a memory yet--I’m not a memory
yet. I would
never subject my fellow citizens to something like this...never...his
shame, not mine...not mine....
dove deep, brushing the source of his thoughtpool. In the think tank,
it was important to meter the flow of energy; you were supposed to
control yourself, as many of the affirmative thought factors were
linked to the body’s adrenal glands, and too much energy
through the battery of the flesh could result in spontaneous
combustion--but here and now, James had no need for safeguards. There
was a very good chance he was going to die anyway, and so he grasped
the white-hot root of himself, worked it up and out. He imagined his
skin erupting in a sheen of flame, lips of fire catching everyone by
surprise. The circuit who’d been carving his arm now recoiled
several steps, bits of crisped flesh sloughing off his arm. Several
people in the jury box were choking on their own vomit.
said Raiden, who’d watched the display with a straight face.
suspected you had as much in you--but alas, our audience appears to
be ailing, so we’ll have to finish this up rather
spread his arms wide, great orbs of electricity forming in each of
his hands. With lightning-quick speed, he attacked James, hurling
first one orb, then the other.
first charge took James’ breath away; the second caused his
to sizzle--but even as the pain threatened to overwhelm him, he felt
his strength exploding, charging him to the max--he snapped free of
his bonds, springing forward and tackling Raiden. Together, they
crashed into the jury box, their bodies splintering wood and
eliciting an inverted rhapsody from the jury, all of whom had seen
enough. People fled in every direction, shouting, screaming, trying
to find a way out. James ignored it all as he wrestled with his
opponent, bore down on him with everything he had, fingers piercing
skin, crushing bone--
this is what you want, came Raiden’s voice from out
air, then so be it.
Hall’s alpha circuit opened the floodgates, and James took
force of an emotional blast so powerful it dissolved him in an
instant. Bodiless, senseless, there was nothing left but raw emotion,
pure thought...unencumbered hatred. James knew Raiden was in his
element now, that there were no rules or limits to hold him back as
he began snuffing out the bits that made up James’ soul.
floated like bubbles on a breeze, and Raiden popped each one in
succession, as if he were playing a game--but therein lay his
mistake, for though James had been born of the flesh and had lived
his life according to the laws of physics, his soul
free as well--
to utilize that special spot he’d discovered so long ago, for
Raiden, inebriated by his own unsavory lust, unmade him from the
outside in, James recalled a very specific memory (one of his
earliest) in which he was six, maybe seven years old, and his parents
had just brought him home from his first visit to a head doctor.
There had been talk of James’ manic depression, possible
treatment; James had lay in his room for a good hour listening to his
parents argue over what to do, and the whole time
smiling, thinking they had it all wrong.
have a special spot, he’d thought. A
miniature sun tucked
inside me, and at any moment I can start a chain reaction to make it
go supernova. One day, he’d always told
himself...one day, if
he ever needed to, he’d put it to use.
reaction had already started. Imagined protons danced together and
formed deuterium, positrons, and neutrinos--a potent solar wind that
bleached clean everything and everyone within James’ reach.
Somewhere Raiden’s awareness flared, but there
wasn’t anything he
could do about what was happening--how could he? How could anyone
single-handedly contain such an incredible force of nature? It was so
much more than even Raiden could absorb, and so he
let himself go, waiting for death, or perhaps an eternity of random,
incomprehensible thought, dreams, hopes, and despairs. It
bad--it was like dreaming.
was like a dream.
drifted through empty space; there was nothing but total silence,
complete stillness as he felt himself settling lower and lower in a
depthless well of time and motion as the soul-stuff sifted to the
bottommost layer, the heavy elements of the Self, flesh, bone, blood,
cotton fabric against his cheek...and the smell of Carol’s
opened his eyes; he was lying on a road in the middle of White
backcountry. Carol had knelt beside him and was cradling his head in
am I doing?” he asked. There was blood, wretched physical
it was manageable.
don’t know what happened,” Carol said, a concerned
look on her
face. She dabbed at his head with a handkerchief. “I watched
get out of the car and...and then that asshole attacked you. I got
out to help, but the two of you just collapsed.”
reached up, wiped a tear from Carol’s cheek. He was glad to
emotions manifesting themselves as such, and it had nothing to do
a minute or two, he sat up and glanced over to where the farmer lay
flat on his back, motionless. “Is he...?”
don’t know,” Carol replied, suddenly bursting into
“James...I don’t know.”
cradled her in his arms and wondered if it was the same for everyone
else in White Hall, waking up from a lifelong daydream and wondering
what to do next. Raiden was almost surely dead, and without his
influence, there would be greed, crime, suffering--there would be
a while, Carol lifted her head and wiped her nose. “Wow. I
cried like that in...ages.” She sniffed, glanced over
shoulder. “This whole business with the Node--”
don’t have to worry about that anymore,” James said.
It’s over. I’m through.”
Carol’s help, James got to his feet and looked down at the
should call someone,” Carol said.
agreed James. “We should.”
wacko...he was probably sick in the head or something.” Carol
her lip and gazed up the road. “Where were we going,
important,” replied James.
scrutinized him for a moment, seemed to sense--but not fully
comprehend--the aftereffects of his battle with Raiden. She looked to
be on the verge of asking a dozen different questions, but her
attention was diverted when a stray shaft of sunlight fell across her
she said, eyes widening. She held her arm up. “The
gone! Oh, James, what has happened?”
good,” James said.
© 2007 Jesse Gordon
Jesse lives and works in southern California, though he
makes every attempt to stay out of the sun. His short fiction
has appeared in a number of speculative venues, including: Anotherealm,
Aphelion, Bewildering Stories, and Deep Magic, to name a few. He has
also written a small handful of novels, which he is currently in the
process of pitching to various publishers. The Knack, his first novel,
is available in limited release from his web site,
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