Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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Node

by Jesse Gordon


Golden 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.

James 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 wasted a 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.

Be happy, he told himself. Look around, see everyone else smiling 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 your editor want to shoot himself in the head.

Looking 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 that read: “I’m no-body.”

“You have the muse.”

James looked up again. A tall, willowy man dressed in white robes was standing over him.

A Node circuit.

“Thanks,” James said, shrugging, “though all too often I don’t know what to do with it.”

The circuit chuckled amiably. “My name’s Lon. May I join you?”

“Sure.”

Lon 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 James’ senses ablaze, and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed the circuit 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.

“A fine afternoon,” said Lon. “May I have your name?”

“James.”

“Ah. You’re an artist?”

James 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.”

“Every mind needs an outlet,” Lon said, fixing his gaze on James’ sketchbook. “May I see?”

James’ instinct was to politely refuse. Instead, he found himself yielding to Lon’s request as he handed the sketchbook over. Lon flipped to the beginning and studied James’ work with great attention, page by page--and as Lon studied the sketchbook, James studied Lon, wondered how much of the man’s appearance was merely cosmetic and how much 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 quite provocative.

“I can see you’ve been following a theme with your work,” Lon said after a time, handing back the sketchbook.

James shrugged. “It’s my therapy. I’m supposed to fill the entire book with happy, cheery images before my next head-session. I’m under quota.”

“Not at all,” said Lon. “I would say someone of your make would have been in far more trouble if he had filled his book with converse imagery. You would have been feigning ignorance.”

“Tell 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.”

“Ah, but conformity is often a far less effective method of recruiting prospective customers, is it not?”

“If you say so.”

A breath escaped Lon’s crimson lips--an echo of laughter. “The 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.”

“That would be me,” James said, sighing.

Lon fell silent for a moment. Then, gazing at some minuscule point across the lawn: “You come here often.”

James shrugged. “On Service Day, mostly. It’s my way of reminding myself I’m still part of the team, as it were.”

“I’ve seen you before, always alone, always brooding.”

“My wife’s the indoor type.”

Lon chuckled again. “I am neither your psychiatrist nor an etiquette officer.”

“But you are here to recruit people. Me, perhaps.”

“Perhaps--unless you’re averse to the Node’s function?”

“No, it’s not that.” James kept his temper in check, wondered again why he hadn’t noticed Lon before today. He didn’t like being watched, studied, or even casually observed. “I get the feeling you know more about me than I do about you.”
“Yes,” Lon said, “one such as myself is privy to the city’s central database--but it isn’t your profile or your salary that’s persuaded me to approach you.”

“Oh? What, then?”

“I sense a longing in you. You wish you’d joined the Fleet.”

True enough, thought James, remembering the recent flyby--ten-thousand 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 was shipped right back home for pills and therapy. I met my wife during a group session. Her name’s Carol; we’re miserable together.”

Correction,” said Lon. “While in close proximity to each other, you think the thoughts of a soldier, and she thinks the thoughts of a citizen.”

“What can I say? You’ve seen my drawings.”

Lon sighed, seemed to study James harder even though he was physically looking the other way. “I see a misunderstood soul contaminated with the residue of a dying mass consciousness. While other young men and women have the privilege of ignorance, you’ve been relegated to pacing the cage, unable to sleep alongside your brothers and sisters--you are no ordinary citizen.”

James swallowed, feeling a feather-touch somewhere deep inside himself. “I’m no clairvoyant either.”

“But the work interests you.”

“Er, what sort of work, exactly?”

“Node work,” Lon replied, facing James again.

“What, accepting donations, handing out brochures--that sort of thing?”

“I’m approaching you as a prospective circuit, James. Surely the subject matter of our conversation has revealed my ulterior motive by now.”

James 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 which every last nightmare, sin, foul intention, and broken dream passes before being processed by the Node’s alpha circuit--you’re telling me you get those kinds of recruits off the street?”

“We hone in on citizens with a specific inclination towards the esoteric, those with the gift of perception--and when we feel the time is right....”

James suddenly felt himself grow chilled as he blinked a few times, studied Lon in an entirely new light. Every good citizen knew of the Node’s 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.

“I should be afraid,” he said.

“Quite the opposite, Mr. DeHaven,” Lon said. “The Node offers empowerment to its candidates--”

Recruits,” James corrected.

A smile spread across Lon’s face. “Well, we’re all recruits, aren’t we? Components of the social machine. Most people are too busy or find it too painful to ponder such truths, but I think you understand completely. I think you’ve understood all too well these 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.”

Tears blurred James’ vision; he was trembling. “I...I don’t know what to say.”

“As 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 over the years.”

It was true--James’ sketchbook was undeniable evidence. “Growing 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.”

Lon’s subtle laughter danced on the breeze. “Oh, there are stories, and 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 few.”

“And you’ve selected me?”

“For an ordinary citizen, such an experience would be most unpleasant, but for you...” Lon reached out and took James’ hand--

--and 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 hoping the security cameras wouldn’t catch him and his girlfriend if they 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, a 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.

When it was over, he was merely James again, sitting alone on the grass with Lon’s business card in his hand, the faint camphoric odor lingering in the air.

He hadn’t noticed the circuit’s exit.


#


The 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 pimple.

It 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.

“Take me home,” he sighed, depositing himself into the passenger seat and 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.

James 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 and 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, James’ 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.

Carol, 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.

Glancing 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 who’d spent yesterday morning sitting in the park and talking to...someone. He couldn’t quite remember. A friend, he thought; someone who’d 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.

He 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 memory--

--Lon. His name had been Lon.

The doorbell rang.

Carol mumbled something in her sleep about his interview and drew the sheets around herself.

James 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.

“How do you do, Mr. DeHaven?” the goon said. “My name’s Franklin. I’ve been instructed by the Alpha Circuit of White Hall to deliver you for an interview this morning.”

That’s right, James thought. They said transportation would be provided. He just hadn’t expected it to be in the form of Franklin, carrying the unspoken promise: Cooperate, or I’ll beat the crap out of you and carry you over my shoulder.

James stepped back from the threshold as Franklin let himself in. “Er, come in.”

“Nice place,” Franklin said, adjusting his tie. “You an artist?”

James blinked. Suddenly he was having trouble thinking in a linear fashion. “What should I wear?”

Franklin shrugged. “Whatever’s comfortable.”

Nodding, 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.

“Jamie?” Carol called from inside a wavering, translucent membrane that had somehow come to encase the bed in the last few minutes. “It’s almost one o’clock. Are you going to be late?”

James 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.

A dream, he thought. I must still be at the park--or maybe I’m home, dreaming I’m home. Maybe none of the above.

He said, “I’m on time. Go back to sleep.”

Carol blew him a kiss, yawned, and rolled onto her side. In no time flat she was out cold.

Franklin 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.

Franklin 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.

James 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 tongue.

“So,” said Franklin. “What do you do, ah, during the day?”

“I’m a graphic artist,” James replied sullenly.

“Artist, huh? I figured. Your apartment had that certain look to it. We don’t get many artists at the Node.”

James imagined that was quite true. “How did you become a circuit?”

“Oh, I’m no circuit,” Franklin said. “I’m an outside contractor. Sort of an extended secretary, if you can believe it.” He laughed. “I wouldn’t last ten seconds in the think tank.”

“You must think I’m a freak, then...I mean, to actually want this.”

Franklin shook his head. “No, no. We all have to do what we have to do, 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 pay my bills.”

Silence 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?”

“Node issue,” Franklin responded. “Keeps me protected. You’ll probably get something similar, only for the inverse--don’t let it throw you, though. Most people around you won’t notice. Only the really sensitive ones.”

James thought himself a “sensitive one,” as his head was spinning, tingling, and had been ever since Franklin’s arrival on his doorstep. It had been the same with Lon, who’d decimated the day 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, so 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.

Franklin had the car idling. “You going to be okay?” he asked, leaning over the passenger seat.

James 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 cool, the sky starless. “Yeah.”

Franklin nodded, and was off. James watched him go. There was no gate, no security--it wasn’t necessary. To anyone who passed close enough, the Node was simply too intense a concentration of dread. It was more than enough merely attempting to visualize the place; if anyone actually tried to infiltrate, they ended up dead or terminally insane--cursory tidbits for the evening news.

For 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.

At the head of the lobby was the reception desk, behind which sat a young woman dressed in white.

“Good morning,” she said upon his approach. “How may I help you?”

James cleared his throat. “I have a one-thirty appointment.”

“Name, please?” asked the receptionist, hands suddenly poised over her computer terminal keyboard.

“James DeHaven.”

The receptionist checked whatever database needed to be checked, then nodded and rose from her seat.

“This way, please,” she said, gesturing to a door that James only now realized had been set into the otherwise seamless wall beyond the desk.

He 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.

After a time, the receptionist stopped in front of a door and, with a quick, efficient flourish, waved it open. “An attendant will be with you shortly,” she said, ushering James inside. “Please remove your clothes and lay on the table. There’s a clothing rack in the corner.”

James 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 medical equipment.

James 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 seemed to emanate from all around, walls, floor, and ceiling; the table was chill against James’ skin, its antiseptic essence overpowering the 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 which 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 who’d been the perpetrator, who’d cast his thoughts out into the deepest depths of space by allowing the merest hint of that enchanting musk to escape from the fold of a billowy robe?

“You smell nice,” James said, thinking of old flowers, dried leaves, fermented fruit.

The nurse smiled politely as she worked. “Is your medical chart up to date, Mr. DeHaven?”

“Yes,” James answered.

“Excellent. I’m just running a few standard tests. I’ve also given you a booster shot, mostly pheromone inhibitors. The disorientation you’re experiencing is completely normal, and will wear off in a few short minutes--at which time I will return to deliver you for your interview. Okay?”

James nodded and watched the attendant as she left.

He 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 suddenly came to his senses, found himself reeling beneath the weight of an immense presence.

The door swished open and a third attendant stepped slightly inside.

“Mr. DeHaven?” she asked.

James snapped into a more placid posture. “Yes?”

The attendant smiled. “This way, please.”

He 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).

“Mr. DeHaven?” she said, turning to face James as she conversed with whomever was on the other end of the line. “Why, yes. I’m just 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 way....”

James 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.

The attendant nodded at the guards and tapped her headset again. “James DeHaven, here to see Raiden.”

A loud click sounded, followed by the vibration of heavy machinery as the vault opened, revealing a descending corridor beyond.

James glanced at the attendant, who’d retreated several steps. It was obvious she wouldn’t be accompanying him past this point.

Taking 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. Node 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.

James 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--

--he knew he’d found heaven.

“Welcome. I am Raiden, Alpha Circuit of White Hall.”

Not 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. Reality here 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 and dead insect carcasses.

“Forgive my rather elusive appearance,” said Raiden, switching to the impression of a hand on James’ shoulder, “but it is probably easier for you to experience my essence in measured doses.”

James cleared his throat. “Is this my interview?”

“In a manner of speaking.” A needle pinprick, blood staining skin, the echo of someone long ago and far away moaning in agony. “Normally there is an interview process, questions and answers, sensitivity tests, but you have caught my attention.”

An 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 I’ve felt like I was the only one who was truly awake, while everyone around me was in a daze. Thinking the things I did, wanting them...I 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 other people. They all wanted shiny little toy ideals packaged in neat little boxes. Until now I thought I’d have to spend my entire life suppressing it, pretending it wasn’t there.”

“I understand,” said Raiden. “I have felt you these last...three decades, has it been?”

“Almost.”

“Such 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 decided, yes?”

James 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.”

“Your 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 examination.”

“I know,” James said, and closed his eyes, remembering--savoring.

Raiden, now the afterthought of a wounded soldier limping through a field of mutilated corpses, seemed pleased. “There are not many like you. 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 have a clue as to the gravity of the situation.”

“Unless,” James said, “you’re one of us.”

“Yes. 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.

“Not 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 to a 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 circuits know, and they willingly accept the mental waste of every last man, woman, and child of White Hall. Together we provide the means for social prosperity.”

James 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.

Raiden’s 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 paperwork will be taken care of. In the meantime I will have someone direct you to your interview. Welcome aboard, Mr. DeHaven.”


#


James 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.

At Chroma Key, his coworkers were none the wiser as to his new 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.

His 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 demanding 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.

The outside at last revealing the inside.

James’ initial exercises were simple: a young boy plotting to steal one of his brother’s favorite toys; an office employee calculating how many of her orders she could half-ass before her group’s quota suffered; a family man considering the various consequences of dipping into his savings account for a stereo system he didn’t really need. In each case, James merely had to absorb the foul intention as it percolated in the respective person’s subconscious. 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.

At 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 or, much to James’ delight, make love.

Then came her episode.

James 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.

James 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 wasn’t sure if Carol had even been home upon his arrival. He felt her now, though, and he knew something was terribly, terribly wrong.

A trail of festering misery led into the kitchen. Carol was there, tucked haphazardly into the corner. Her nightgown was stained, spattered.

Hoping the stains were just coffee, James rushed to her side. “Carol? What’s the matter? Baby--”

Carol shrieked at his touch, pushed him away. “Get away, get away!”

James flinched at the intensity of her outburst. She rippled with bad vibes--it gave him an instant (albeit unwanted) erection.

“Carol,” he said, and backed off slightly. “What’s the matter? What’s happened?”

She 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 and over. When I woke up, you were gone--I looked for a note...” She trailed off, her voice caught in her throat.

“I was at work,” James said. “Overtime--”

Carol reached behind her back, produced a piece of paper--

--his Node contract.

“I read it all,” she sobbed, a fresh stream of tears moistening the crust on her cheek. “Is it true? Are you one of them?”

James 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 him, wouldn’t even look at him.

She doesn’t know, he reminded himself. Not really. She’s distraught, frantic emotions and citizen stereotypes of what the Node is, what it’s for. She just needs to calm down.

He 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.

“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 of your voice...I don’t know why I didn’t notice before--the 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 a week. How long were you going to let this go on without telling me? How...how could you do such a thing? Willingly?”

James 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 week.” He reached out to touch Carol’s cheek when suddenly she scrunched her eyes shut and started shrieking.

“Don’t touch, don’t touch!”

“Carol! Please, calm down! The neighbors--”

“Nuts to the neighbors!” Carol pushed James away, started kicking at him. “What do you care anyway? You’re not even human anymore!”

James 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--

--it 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 consciousness.

James 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 gleaned entirely too much pleasure from the experience. He couldn’t be certain if he’d done it to alleviate Carol’s suffering or to satisfy his own insatiable lust for all that was displeasing.

After 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

A short while later, Lon showed up. Wordlessly, James let him in and directed him to where Carol lay laughing in her sleep.

“What can we do?” James asked.

Lon placed his hand against Carol’s forehead, and instantly she settled. “You’ve abated the worst. Let her sleep it off. She 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 her.”

“That’s it?”

“This isn’t an exact science,” said Lon, standing again and smiling sympathetically. “Sometimes this sort of thing happens, usually to 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 you make 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.”

James nodded and watched Carol sleep. “What about the membrane? She says it’s uncomfortable.”

“A 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 shouldn’t notice--but what about you? Are you going to be all right?”

“I suppose.” James let out a long, slow breath. Things had been going so well; he’d finally been able to become the man he’d always dreamed of becoming, and Carol hadn’t displayed the slightest negative symptom--and now suddenly, from one day to the next....

James showed Lon out, then sat by Carol’s side for the rest of the hour. Last night her essence had been fresh and ripe, the day’s amassed mental blemishes delightfully varied as he’d plucked them from her mind. Now, however, she was barren. He’d drained her completely. It would be days before her stores replenished themselves.

After 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.

At lunchtime, he went out onto the balcony, where he was presented with a splendid view of White Hall’s urban mosaic. Everything seemed 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.

It was early evening when Carol at last came awake, yawning and stretching and looking at James as if he were the one who’d been sleeping all day.

“You look out of it,” she said, matter-of-factly.

James 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?”

“Of course I am,” she replied, looking at him with a placid expression.

He wanted to ask her if she remembered anything, but, fearing a relapse, he merely made small talk instead. For the most part, she was responsive.

For the most part.


#


The Chroma Key party was on a Wednesday.

James 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 knew 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.

Empty space.

He got her alone at one point and asked (for the umpteenth time since her episode) if she was all right.

“I’m having a wonderful time,” she said, and kissed him dutifully on the cheek.

“You seem distant,” he said.

“Do I?” Carol slipped into his arms, deftly tapped his butt when no one was looking. “How about now?”

James laughed. “My mistake. Trick of the light, I guess.” He kissed her again and let her go, watched as she blended effortlessly into the crowd.

That 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 all. Most 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 flesh.


#


Weeks became months, and Carol’s condition continued to atrophy. Some 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 when she’d been at her most vulnerable, and now he was living with a 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.

James 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 countless 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).

James’ insight came naturally. Instead of mere hints or notions pertaining to the layout of a person’s mind, he could actually see the 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 to 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.

Inevitably, he couldn’t resist using his new skills on Carol, and did so one evening before his delivery to the Node. Laying beside her, he put himself into a light sleep. In the dreamstate, Carol’s thoughtpool 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 levels 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 chill.

Taking 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 fashion, and so, with nowhere to go, they accumulated, taking up more and more space until--

James 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 to live....

He 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 shiny.

Holding her close, he whispered, “Oh, Carol. The world is one big nightmare, isn’t it?”


#


The memory of Carol’s mental gallery haunted James for weeks.

It was quite infuriating: He was a circuit--he made a living absorbing other people’s fallacies, and yet he couldn’t help Carol because she wasn’t living any of her own. Oh, she had a surplus, but it was all objective; whenever he tried working on her, he was only able to glean the portraits of her thoughts and not the thoughts themselves.

And so he suffered.

Thinking of how to rectify the situation often resulted in long periods of counter productivity at Chroma Key, where everyone but himself seemed blissfully unaware of the intricate workings of existence. James’ thoughtpool sessions were a temporary reprieve during which 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.

His 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.

James 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 who warranted special attention. This led James to believe that perhaps Carol’s condition was merely the result of how Raiden’s system worked inside the radius. But outside, and without Raiden’s 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.

James 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 one’s own food, making one’s own clothes, scavenging for resources, no electricity, no medicine--and there was the emotional factor, too. A large part of James’ well-being was dependent upon society’s 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 only benefit would be Carol’s chance at improvement.

Leaning 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 hesitating.

I should have done something that first week.

Glancing 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--

--into the darkness.

Beyond 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.

Jumping 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 something, anything. It was endless silence broken occasionally by muffled laughter, snarled insults, unheard calls for help, stifled moans of passion--

--a man, his wife and two children lived in a small house surrounded by vegetable fields. James entered the man’s mind and traveled the day’s experiences, working, sweating, ignoring the chronic back 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.

And tomorrow it will begin all over again.

James shifted viewpoints, settling into the son’s mind. He found himself 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 girlie, he thought as she froze and screamed for him to get it off. He laughed, calling her “baby” as he moved to flick the offending 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-

“Getting an early start, I see.”

James blinked, found he was standing in Raiden’s Node chamber. Looking down at himself, he saw he was still wearing the boy’s body; there were muddy prints beneath his bare feet. “I...I was just...browsing,” he said, and tried unsuccessfully to shake his costume. “I was in the mood for a little variety.”

Raiden shifted beside him, a small fleet of spider legs probing the back of James’ neck. “Interesting choice. Was the city not enough for you?”

“It was. I just...had some time to kill. It seemed like an interesting place to go.”

“I 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.”

“I know.”

“Yet you long for something. You are...unsatisfied.”

James swallowed. “I...my wife--she’s been ill. She hasn’t adjusted very well at all to my new position here at the Node.”

“I see--and you feel that perhaps by searching without, you can glean insight within.”

James said nothing. He knew Raiden could sense his thoughts regardless, and for the first time since becoming a Node employee, James didn’t want the insight. At least, not when he was the subject of speculation.

A 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.

“You recognize yourself, do you not?” Raiden asked.

James 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 river’s edge. He wore James’ skin like a suit of clothes, and even did a full turn to showcase mottled calves and legs, dimpled buttocks splitting at the seams, back and shoulders riddled with lesions.

Something stirred in James, an unexpected revulsion. “In a nightmare, perhaps,” he said.

Raiden nodded. “This is how Carol sees you. Her emotional recession, rare 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 change.”

“Not unless I want it to,” James said, softly.

“Oh, 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?”

James bit his lip. “Carol is my wife. I love her.”

“She is one woman,” said Raiden, stepping close, assaulting James’ senses with an amalgam of death and decay. “Your wife, your love, yes, but...when you took this job you were willing to sacrifice the self for the whole.”

“Of course--but I made that decision, not Carol. She got stuck with it.”

“There 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.”

“A divorce?” James shook his head. “That’s not an option. For other circuits, maybe, but not for me.”

A severe look came over Raiden’s pseudo-face. “You want to leave White Hall.”

“Maybe.” James hadn’t yet decided.

“Running away will solve nothing,” Raiden said. “You will once again be making a decision on Carol’s behalf, without her consent--and, of course, you must know that once a citizen leaves White Hall, his ID chip is flagged. He cannot come back.”

James shrugged, trying hard to mask his emotions, to think in roundabout ways. “Maybe that’s how it’s got to be.”

Raiden chuckled. “For some, perhaps, but for you it is not that simple. 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.”

Of course, thought James. The city. The Node. My “colleagues.” Loyalty, perseverance, dedication, and all that. It would be selfish to up and leave simply because of a few rough edges. He studied 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, but he also wanted to run screaming from what he knew Raiden could do to him if he went astray.

“Trapped,” said Raiden, now embracing James as a father might his son. “We are 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.”

Raiden 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.

Damn, James caught himself thinking. Impressive.


#


James 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.

His 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 entirely.

Somehow 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.

“Long time no see,” James said as they were off.

“Long time no see, Mr. DeHaven,” Franklin replied, smiling.

They rode together in silence, James unwilling to talk, Franklin unwilling to prod his passenger.

When they arrived at James’ apartment, he got out of the car and said, “Thanks for the ride.”

“No problem, Mr. DeHaven.”

“Say, Frank?”

“Yeah?”

“Just out of curiosity, what if you came to pick me up one morning and I refused to go with you?”

“Then, I’d have to knock you out and take you in unconscious.”

James 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.”

“You too, Mr. DeHaven.”

Franklin 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.

Instead, 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 he’d known for years and years. He didn’t.

Passing 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 mascara, a child’s rosy glow. James knew his fellow citizens were medicated, unaware of their condition; they were rattling around inside the White Hall machine and inadvertently feeding the dreams of a ravenous alpha circuit.

Property of Raiden.

James 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 he’d known all along and had merely been keen enough to keep his thoughts closed, lest Raiden catch on prematurely.

He made it to the car, and was strapping Carol into her seat when a familiar voice sounded inside his head:

This is rather unprofessional.

Carol stirred, glancing matter-of-factly at James. “Are we late for the breakfast menu or something?”

“It’s a surprise,” James replied, and shut the door--

You realize this is a breach of protocol.

--went around to the driver’s side and got behind the wheel.

This will almost certainly ruin your career.

James 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.

Nice 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 city life.

James recalled a city map he’d studied covertly during his walk and worked out the quickest route to White Hall’s eastern border.

It 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.

James didn’t respond.

Turn around, James, before it’s too late.

James 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 the nose.

The suburbs gradually thinned, giving way to White Hall’s outlying farmlands. Here, the human presence was sporadic. James caught a thought here, an idea there; it was the first time he’d physically 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 man 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.

Carol jolted awake as they came to a shuddering stop. “Christ, James. You think you could offer up a little warning the next time you decide to switch to off-road-mode?”

James ignored her; he was far more concerned about having possibly plowed right over some poor citizen. “Wait here,” he said, unbuckling his seatbelt.

“James--”

“I’ll be right back.”

He 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.

Strange, he thought, neck-hairs suddenly bristling. He turned around--

--and found himself face to face with a tall, husky man wearing overalls and a bandanna.

A farmer. He was carrying a garden hoe.

James let out a sigh. “Geez, for a moment there I thought I’d--are you all right?”

In 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’ head, 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 burning sinuses.

“Do you know what happens when a circuit burns out?” he heard the farmer ask.

James tried to open his eyes, but everything seemed so bright, so sharp that his eyelids sealed themselves shut out of desperation. “N-no.”

“Let me show you, then.”

Raiden smiled--James didn’t have to look to see the wicked grin swallowing him whole as the marionette-farmer grabbed him by the neck and hauled him to his feet. Rough fingers pulled at James’ eyelids, forcing them open. His vision was blurred, blotted, save for two focal points: the farmer’s eyes. They sizzled and crackled with static 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 faces.

A pair of robed men (James recognized them from the Node) appeared on James’ right side. They’d brought with them a small cart carrying a collection of wicked-looking scalpels and knives.

“These citizens will know you,” came Raiden’s voice, soft and gentle, on James’ left. He’d taken on the form of a young man with ash-blond hair and slender, almost androgynous features--the afterimage of the body he’d once had, or perhaps a composite of all his nightmare bodies, for though he was whole, complete, his skin was heavily seamed--as if he were a puppet sewn together from various other individuals’ flesh.

“They will despise you,” Raiden continued, pacing slowly back and forth before James. “They will watch you suffer, and they will see the 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 and brushed the back of his hand against James’ cheek. “Your soul 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.”

James felt a sharp sting as one of Raiden’s assistants made an effective incision in his upper arm. One of the women screamed at the first sign of blood.

“An abomination,” Raiden said slowly, closing his eyes. “Give me your agony--let me drink ’till the last drop.”

Another 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.

“Look--look!” Raiden said, waving his arm at the jury, whose eyes unwillingly became glued on the podium. “They want to look away, but they are compelled to watch. The loving husband, the proper wife...”

James felt himself sighing inwardly. Even in the midst of all the pain there were slivers of pleasure, his true nature summoning itself from the depths--

No, 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 to his 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....

James 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 channeled 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.

“Impressive!” said Raiden, who’d watched the display with a straight face. “I suspected you had as much in you--but alas, our audience appears to be ailing, so we’ll have to finish this up rather quickly.”

He 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.

The first charge took James’ breath away; the second caused his flesh 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--

If this is what you want, came Raiden’s voice from out of thin air, then so be it.

White Hall’s alpha circuit opened the floodgates, and James took the full 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. Memories 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 was now free as well--

--free to utilize that special spot he’d discovered so long ago, for as 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 methods of treatment; James had lay in his room for a good hour listening to his parents argue over what to do, and the whole time he was smiling, thinking they had it all wrong.

I 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.

Today.

The 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 was absorbed.

James let himself go, waiting for death, or perhaps an eternity of random, incomprehensible thought, dreams, hopes, and despairs. It wasn’t so bad--it was like dreaming.

Everything was like a dream.

He 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 perfume.

He opened his eyes; he was lying on a road in the middle of White Hall’s backcountry. Carol had knelt beside him and was cradling his head in her arms.

“How...how am I doing?” he asked. There was blood, wretched physical pain, but it was manageable.

“I don’t know what happened,” Carol said, a concerned look on her face. She dabbed at his head with a handkerchief. “I watched you get out of the car and...and then that asshole attacked you. I got out to help, but the two of you just collapsed.”

James reached up, wiped a tear from Carol’s cheek. He was glad to see her emotions manifesting themselves as such, and it had nothing to do with self-gratification.

After a minute or two, he sat up and glanced over to where the farmer lay flat on his back, motionless. “Is he...?”

“I don’t know,” Carol replied, suddenly bursting into tears. “James...I don’t know.”

He 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 life.

It was terrifying.

After a while, Carol lifted her head and wiped her nose. “Wow. I haven’t cried like that in...ages.” She sniffed, glanced over James’ shoulder. “This whole business with the Node--”

“You don’t have to worry about that anymore,” James said.

“But I thought--”

“Really. It’s over. I’m through.”

With Carol’s help, James got to his feet and looked down at the farmer’s body.

“We should call someone,” Carol said.

“Yes,” agreed James. “We should.”

“The wacko...he was probably sick in the head or something.” Carol bit her lip and gazed up the road. “Where were we going, anyway?”

“Nowhere important,” replied James.

Carol 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 forearm.

“Look,” she said, eyes widening. She held her arm up. “The membrane--it’s gone! Oh, James, what has happened?”

“Something good,” James said. “Something...wonderful.”

The End


© 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, http://www.jessture.com/.

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