Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Ars Poetica

by Lawrence Buentello


i

Of course, Tristine's mother wanted her to be a poet, which is why her life was now meaningless.

That was Tristine's interpretation, not that of the Career Counselor. Tristine sat on the other side of his desk trying not to let her crestfallen expression seem utterly hopeless. If she retained some dignity, some artistic grace, perhaps he would --

"Your selective analysis," the Counselor said, a plant-form hybrid named Mr. Hospar, though he seemed so reconditioned into the typical cucumber-like morphotype, complete with smooth, tubular complements meant to offer a fine minimalist symmetry, that she could hardly see where the masculine qualities applied, "indicates that you will be much better suited to the entertainment industry. Specifically cyberspace news-worthy. Perhaps some comedy writing, if your talents improve. I have it on good word that much of your poetry seems rather -- well, humorous."

"Mr. Hospar," Tristine said, smiling graciously while trying to dismiss the thought of running a potato peeler across his pate, "I am a poet. My mother was approved to select the best genetic influences available. She even managed to have the DNA from the pith of Lord Byron's teeth analyzed and incorporated into my design. I have been composing poetry since I was three years-old. The entirety of my education has been tailored toward the creation of poetry. I am a poet."

Mr. Hospar possessed no hair, no eyebrows, no chin. It was very difficult for Tristine to sense any emotional reaction on his face at all. His voice was calm and vibrated from a high octave. All she could see was the light reflecting in his over-large pupils, and she was almost certain it wasn't a compassionate light. Perhaps that was why he was a counselor.

"Young lady," Mr. Hospar said, "I know this must seem disappointing to you. But, you know, I myself was engineered with leftovers from Einstein's brain stem. I was designed to work in an exclusive think-tank for the Space Program. Sorrowfully, my test scores indicated otherwise. I, too, was disappointed, but after being refurbished and retrained I found I actually enjoyed being a counselor. Our testing never fails. In a society this large only a few design plans ever make it to their intended destination. But the lower echelons of our society only benefit from the situation."

"By having so many unhappy people within them?"

"No, by having so many fine minds enriching what would otherwise be mediocre positions."

"But don't you see the fallacy in that argument?" Tristine swept her arms into the air, her long, black hair billowing around her shoulders, her face assuming a well executed Athena-in-her-moment-of-grace expression -- and how could anyone possibly question the integrity of her design after seeing such a display -- then her eyes flashed a piteous light diffracted by the tears forming on the beautifully shadowed rims of her eyelashes. "If you design a person to live in a particular world, a world of beauty, art and poetry, how can you possibly expect her to live happily in some other world? I am a poet, a creator of beautiful words, of beautiful written expressions -- how can you condemn me to live out my life being something else?"

Mr. Hospar smiled radiantly, his fine, white teeth contrasting eerily with his pale sea-green skin. "Such is life."

"But I don't want to be anything else."

"I'm afraid there's nothing else we can do. But, what's to worry? After you're retrained you won't want to write poetry. You'll positively love your new career."

"That's horrible! I love poetry!"

"All things are relative, Miss Clover. Love is such a fleeting thing. Especially programmed love. All any of us ever need is a purpose in our lives. So the initial purpose of your design didn't prove fruitful -- there are so many more designs where that came from."

"Do you know what I think?" Tristine said, all semblance of Athena washed from her pose by her anger, "I think your testing is a political facade and you people arbitrarily decide who gets to be what. How about Davio? What kind of poet is he supposed to be?"

"Davio is hermaphrodite. No gender labels need apply. Besides, Davio is a wonderful national poet. Don't you think Davio's poetry is beautiful?"

"His poetry reeks."

"Gender, now. But that's the point entirely. How can you expect to become a classified poet if you think one of our finest poets is a charlatan?"

"He's the President's son, isn't he?"

"Pure coincidence."

"I want to speak to your superior."

"Are any of us really superior?"

"You know what I mean."

"And you know what I mean," Mr. Hospar said, a bit enflamed. "There is no legal recourse, Miss Clover. You've been administered the seven basic tests and your scores are evident. Why do people always do this to me? Everyone knows the process going in, everyone knows the possibility for successful personal choice is only three per cent. Why?"

"Perhaps it's because they feel like you're imposing a psychological death sentence."

"Oh, good point."

"After today, I'll no longer exist. All my dreams are so much ash."

"Oh."

"My vision, my breath, my soul are vapor."

"Oh, dear."

"You've announced my artistic death, and I can do nothing but fall into your soulless machine and be crushed within it."

"Oh, my. But, you know, I don't actually own the machine -- "

Tristine sighed and slumped into her seat. She stared at the hapless counselor and ground her teeth. There was nothing he could do, nothing she could do, nothing anyone could do. It was an inevitable conscription, and she knew the penalties for violating its tenets. She felt her soul wither inside, or at least the soul that had been given such a wonderfully artistic design.

The counselor before her sniffled alarmingly; he also began to hiccup dryly. After a while Tristine felt an overwhelming poetic duty to put her arm around the cucumber-like Mr. Hospar and comfort him as he wept prodigiously.

"I'm only doing my job," he sniffed, his green skin shimmering with tears like well-rinsed produce.

ii

"I don't see where you have a choice."

Tristine turned away from the screen illuminating one of her better poems and regarded her mother. Lindi Clover was a beautiful woman -- of course, every woman in the country was beautiful, except the poor ones, but that was a different matter entirely -- a glimmering blonde goddess with perfect facial symmetry and large, glowing breasts. They were specially designed to glow, a subtle enhancement her mother acquired before Tristine was born to attract financial support for her little-poet-to-be. Lindi stood by the bedroom door with her arms crossed, smothering the light of her breasts and appearing much too matter-of-fact for Tristine's tastes.

"Mother, there are always choices."

"Spoken like a poet," Lindi said, exposing a dazzling smile, "or almost like a poet."

"You're my true comfort."

"Baby, you're only seventeen years old and you have no working knowledge of the world. It's a horrid place, only made habitable by sheer cunning. Accept reality and work with it."

Tristine turned in her chair. She crossed her arms, too, in an effort to counteract her mother's intransigent pose.

"Work with enslavement?"

"Enslavement? I said reality. And the reality of the situation is that you'll become what you're qualified to become and work on improvements thereafter, just like everyone else. Do you think I started out this way? I was the Senior Secretary in the Billings Corporation when I was processed, but now I'm the Administrative Director. Or have you forgotten?"

"You remind me of it constantly."

"Do you think faces like this grow on trees? I had to work my way up to ‘perfect blonde'. Before I had you I was an ‘asymmetrical brunette'. "

"I'm an asymmetrical brunette."

"Do you see what potential you have?"

Tristine uncrossed her arms. Her hands, in fact, fluttered about like frightened grouse. "I'm a poet, mother! I want to remain a poet. I don't want to be reconditioned, I don't want my mind altered, I don't want to be something different. I want to be who I am right now. Don't you understand?"

"You teenagers are all alike," Lindi said, releasing her hands from the confinement of her perfect breasts and raising them into the air. "You only want to do what you want to do. Tristine, you have no choice. You know what they do to adolescents who refuse to go through processing?"

"And who thought that up? Are we a civilized people or slave-traders? Where are our individual rights?"

"Extinct, along with the whales and edible sea-life. Do you understand, Tristine? This is your world. I'm sorry things didn't work out like I planned them for you, but you should never trust discount geneticists. I hope, if you place in the lottery and have your own child that you'll wait until you can afford quality designing."

"Thanks for the impressive heritage."

"I'm sorry, baby, but I could only do so much."

Lindi Clover swept majestically across the room and embraced her daughter's head. Tristine closed her eyes and fell into a dark, dark chasm, full of bad comedy writing and spinning newslines. She thought there might be space for pipe dreams and the loss of personal liberty in there as well. Certainly there was enough space for her foolish desires. Fourteen years of standard education, ten years learning and interpreting the classics, five years submitting her poetry to the cyber-journals, three years of some very nice criticism of her work -- that was all she knew, all she loved, all she desired. Was it all going to wash away simply because some faceless entity, some ill-programmed supercomputer determined that she wasn't the stuff of poetry? It was absurd. The entire process was absurd.

Her mother released her head and Tristine stared up into her face. Tears began to well in her eyes. "Mother, why did you design me as a poet?"

Lindi Clover looked down and smiled. "It was either a poet or a fashion model. But the fashions that year were gross, so I went with the poet. I always loved ‘Jabberwocky'."

Tristine lowered her face into her hands and began to cry.

####

As Tristine lay in bed that night she decided she wasn't going to be reprogrammed.

She decided this with a clarity that might be called an epiphany, and sat up in the darkness. She breathed the darkness deeply, as if it could be drawn into her through her nostrils. She brushed her palms down across her body as if gathering herself in a fine sensory web, pulling her flesh tightly against her conscious mind and realizing that she wasn't going to submit to any violation of her personality or purpose. She was a poet, she would remain a poet, and she would die a poet.

Tristine rolled from her bed and sat at her desk. She activated the screen, copied the files containing her compositions -- hundreds of poems, perhaps a thousand -- then transferred the files onto a portable unit and closed down the system. She sat in the darkness hugging the portable to her breasts, the unit holding the totality of her life, her gift, her contribution. She would live to write other poems, she knew, she would live to prove the featureless face of the political machine very, very wrong.

And then Tristine did something even she found remarkable.

She dressed, packed a small bag and left the secure comfort of the condominium. She boarded a subtrain for the Agrarian Outland and, for the first time in her life, left the spiraling architecture of the city behind.

iii

And so, with only her portable unit, a satchel of personal items and a copy of her mother's debit key Tristine traveled to the far limits of the Agrarian Outland where she stepped off the train and inhaled the swirling aroma of tons of human fertilizer. She had no idea the country had so many prefab housing units encircling the tidy fields of vegetation, nor so many endless rows of prefab restaurants. It was three days before she managed to find a tree. But when she did, she bought a ticket just like everyone else for the privilege of touching it. She felt so attuned to nature that she reached out and hugged the trunk. The bark was a bit grimy, though, from so much touching, and the tree's owner wasn't very happy either, even after Tristine promised to write a poem about the experience.

"Davio already wrote a poem about my tree," the man said, and he pulled a wafer-thin display sheet from the pocket of his coveralls to prove it.

The poem read:

Lovely is the tree
That gathers here for me.
And lovelier I'll be
For having touched
Its everlasting mass.

Tristine rolled her eyes.

"I told him when it gets the blight I'll let him have the pulp for binding an actual book of his poems."

Tristine would love to have had an actual paper book of her poems.

"Davio is hermaphrodite," she said, a little absently.

"That's only a rumor."

Tristine touched the tree's bark, feeling its roughness, its sheer natural presence. "Can I write a poem about your tree, anyway?"

"Are you a poet?"

"Yes."

"You look a little young to be a poet. Can I see your license?"

Tristine closed her mouth on the lie she was about to tell.

"I thought so. No, you may not write a poem about my tree."

Someone behind her shouted, "Hurry up with that tree!" and the man ushered Tristine to the area where the other tree touchers had congregated to relate their experiences to one another. What Tristine felt like relating had nothing to do with the tree.

####

She found a motel on the north quadrant of a huge soybean farm and devised her plan.

She was supposed to report to the Career Counselors' Offices the following week, which meant she had all of six days to begin her revolutionary crusade. She went to the strip mall and purchased some regional clothing -- synthetic work boots, UV screen coveralls, UV skullcap and visor, all very blasé and all very, very gray. Everything in the Agrarian countryside was gray; the people were even gray, their hair possessed a grayish hue and their teeth shone like a metallic-gray Cheshire cat's. Only their eyes were black, a solid, expansive black that made them seem like caricatures. And there was very little genetic variance among them, they all seemed to mesh as one symbiotic entity, tilling the land, cultivating the fields, progressively marketing the government-regulated properties to a proactive international market, shoveling manure -- it was an entirely different world from the one Tristine knew, but she made careful notes and was certain it would all prove inspirational for her next book of poetry. She brought up the appropriate regional maps on her portable unit, she plotted and planned and sat in her motel room all night writing marvelous lines of poetry that expressed her fondest wishes for ultimate freedom and justice. She felt, in her heart where all pure things found reality, that she was about to embark on the greatest revolutionary crusade since Joan of Arc.

She was so excited she couldn't even eat her Soya cheese cake.

Which was too bad, because it was especially good coming fresh from the country.

####

On the first day Tristine read her poetry in front of an outdoor restaurant near the subtrain depot.

The crowd of grayish hued people eating cheese cake stared at her in a quiet concern.

Tristine raised her portable unit into the air and read from the tiny screen:

"I suffer for the ones
Who suffer without voice,
I suffer for the ones
Who sleep in the dust of dreams;
I walk in the fields with those
Who walk through broken promises,
And speak for those who must be free."

The restaurant's manager came out onto the patio and silenced her by waving his arms.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't contract out for poetry. You must have the wrong restaurant."

Tristine lowered her portable and smiled her best asymmetrical brunette smile. "No, no. I'm reading my poetry for free."

"For what?"

"For free. I'm expressing myself freely."

The manager crossed his arms over his apron and shook his head. "I didn't contract out for any poetry. Now, I'm not paying you so you may as well leave."

"I don't expect to be paid."

The manager stared at her dumbly. He turned and stared dumbly at the members of the agrarian population who were nervously eyeing their cheese cake. He shrugged. They shrugged. The manager turned back to Tristine.

"You're with the Cultural Outreach Program, aren't you?"

"No," Tristine said. "I'm a free poet, freely reciting my poems."

The manager dropped his arms, seeming to finally understand the situation for what it was. "Oh, I get it. You're a comedian. This is a bit." He laughed nervously, and the restaurant's patrons also laughed. Everyone seemed to relax and began forking up cheese cake. "But I still don't remember contracting out for a comedian. Maybe Mario did. Well, all right, but make sure nobody chokes to death from laughing."

Tristine shook her head as the manager returned inside the building. Then she raised her portable again and resumed her recitation.

But every time she read a line the crowd began to chuckle.

Even, I cry to the night for my right to be free! brought an enormous wave of laughter from the diners. Tristine, sensing she had momentarily misjudged the intellectual priorities of the crowd, deactivated her unit and walked away.

But not before the patrons of the restaurant gave her a generous round of applause.

####

On the second day she walked right past the security system of the largest maize farm on the Eastern Seaboard. She then tilted back the visor of her UV skull cap and began proselytizing to the hundreds of technical support personnel who stood by the huge pans of maize stalks that rolled by on conveyor belts leading to the robotic processing plant where human labor was not at all required. It was the technical support personnel's responsibility to make certain none of the pans fell off the belt.

Tristine stood on one of the overturned pans (several men and women stood around the pan for a while, evidently trying to determine the best approach to righting a pan on which stood a proselytizing human being) shouting her words into the air and shaking her fist at the theoretical powers-that-be. She read:

"We must rise from our stations
And declare the world obsolete!
Let our words be freely formed,
Let our thoughts be our own,
Let us cherish our freedom
In the birthplace of our liberty!"

The gathering personnel listened politely. Then one woman, possibly a supervisor of the other pan-watchers, said, "Miss, can you please come off that pan so we can put it back on the belt?"

"I'm the Agrarian Poet!" Tristine cried, still shaking her fist. "I've come among you to free your minds of your entrenched servitude."

"Entrenched servitude?" the woman said, raising her eyebrows. "Hell, I like my job. Next month I'll be able to afford a nip and tuck."

"Don't you see? You only believe you like your job because you've been programmed to like it. You really don't."

"I don't?"

"No. It's all a scam."

"Well, really, young lady, I think I should know whether I like my job or not. And I do."

The woman turned to the man behind her. "Hey, Phil, do you like your job?"

"Sure," Phil said, looking up at Tristine and nodding. "It's a good job. What am I going to do, work in a think-tank?"

The other people around him laughed roundly, apparently at the thought of Phil manipulating complex intellectual concepts.

Tristine said, "Don't you want to be free to be whoever and whatever you want to be?"

"What I want to be?" Phil asked. "I'm already something."

"But only because somebody programmed you to be that way. Don't you want to have your own free choice to be whatever you want to be?"

"This is what I want to be," Phil said.

"But only because someone made you be that way!"

"I sense a vicious cycle here," the woman said from below Tristine. "I sense it, but I don't really appreciate it. Say, do you work here?"

Tristine hopped off the pan and slipped back out through the security system, which, it would appear, wasn't all that secure.

Once the pan was resettled on the belt the gathered personnel felt much better.

####

On the third day Tristine received a communiqué from her mother.

Tristine sat in her darkened motel room in front of the portable unit listening to voice mail.

"Tristine, this is your mother. I've finally traced you down and I know you have this unit, so don't even think of shutting me off. I know you're in that awful farmland because I made a debit inquiry and I'm no fool. What do you think you're doing? Don't you know you'll be arrested for evading processing? Don't you know what they'll do to you? They'll make you a sewage inspector or some other dreadful occupation! You could be managing a landfill. You must come home right away, before the authorities get a hold of you. I love you, Tristine, please don't do this to your mother!"

Tristine listened earnestly to her mother's less than earnest plea. Then she sent her own communiqué. "I'm a poet, mother, and I'm trying to find my audience. Freely, and without restraint. I will not become something I'm not and I won't participate in something I don't believe in. I fully intend to keep fighting for my own identity. I love you, but I love my poetry, too. I hope you understand."

####

Apparently her mother didn't understand, because on the fourth day, as she was hailing down a tractor pilot to read him a really wonderful sonnet on the woes of being a tractor pilot, some undercover police rose from the vegetation and apprehended her. They confiscated her portable unit -- it was, as one of her captors suggested, to be kept in evidence -- then they searched her motel room, stole some towels and transported Tristine back to the city.

iv

In a sardonic twist to her situation, the newsworthies were full of the story of her arrest. Some were very creative, Tristine thought, though none were truthful. The authorities wouldn't let her release a statement. As a matter of fact, they had one ghost-written for her. The ironies kept piling up, too. Her mother gave a complete statement: where did I go wrong? and the rest. It was Lindi who let the investigators trace the call -- apparently her mother wasn't happy about the expenses Tristine was accruing. In any case, Tristine was arrested and charged with anarchy, though no one could give her a clear definition of what anarchy might be. She'd violated the processing procedure, and that was enough.

Social history had rendered the traditional prison system unnecessary, since everyone was automatically given a lawful career. Most people were satisfied with the system. Most people, of course, were designed to be satisfied with the system. Only a few deranged law-breakers and anarchists, like Tristine, needed to be tended to, which explained why careers in law enforcement were rare. She was therefore held in the detention center in the Counselors' Offices until her trial.

Lindi visited her on several occasions, begging her forgiveness, asking what she'd been sniffing to make her go completely psycho, wondering what she should do with Tristine's room after she was gone --

Tristine sat in her room composing lines of verse in her mind. She had done nothing wrong. And she was going to prove it before a court of her peers.

####

It was a very short trial.

Most trials were pretty short, given the circumstances under which the accused were arraigned. The guards brought Tristine, dressed in a simple white cotton dress with just a hint of lace at the sleeves, shackled at the wrists and appearing very woebegone. Her lips were drawn in a determined line, though, and her head was held high. She was guided past the gallery of witnesses, her own mother near the front of the magistrate's bench weeping dramatically into a monogrammed handkerchief, and finally to a seat before the magistrate himself. Presently, Mr. Hospar stepped lumberingly to her side. Mr. Hospar, aside from being her career counselor, was also her legal counsel.

Tristine didn't even glance in Hospar's direction. Her eyes were focused on the magistrate before her, a tall, heavy bestial morphotype with the wide, hairy head of a bear, or possibly a moose. Since he had no horns, the smart money was on the bear. His huge hairy hands formed small hairy hills where he laid them on the monitor before him. His expression was solemn, as befitted a man who was being scanned on national and international holovision for an audience of perhaps five hundred million. Those audiences really loved their drama.

"Tristine Clover," the magistrate said, his voice booming through the room, "I have examined the evidence against you and have come to the conclusion that these allegations are well brought, and furthermore that you have violated the Conscription Processing Act in a most egregious display of disrespect and anarchistic intent."

"She made us listen to substandard poetry!" shouted someone from the crowd.

Tristine wondered if it was her mother.

"Furthermore," the magistrate continued, dismissing the outburst, "I find that you did intentionally seek to disrupt the community harmony by inciting anarchistic propaganda, id est, that you did recite incendiary and unlicensed poetry with the intention of causing an anarchistic uprising. You have been examined by a psychological counselor and found to be competent and rational. Therefore, I have no alternative but to find you guilty on all counts."

Tristine sighed. Heavily.

"Mr. Hospar," the magistrate said, "do you have anything to say before I pronounce sentence?"

"Are you sure she's not crazy?" Hospar said. He smiled brightly. "You know, she made me cry. But don't hold that against her, because I don't think she really knows what she's doing. I think maybe she displays what are called ‘obsessive tendencies'. I looked it up in the archives. I don't believe she really understands that her acts are irrational. Your honor."

Hospar grinned again, and the burly magistrate shrugged uncomfortably under his robe.

"She has been examined by a psychological counselor and found to be rational," the magistrate said. "Personal opinion cannot be accepted as evidence."

"Hey, I tried my best."

"Do you, Miss Tristine Clover, have anything to say before I pass sentence?"

Tristine could sense the cameras zooming in on her face. This was the moment for which the entire nation had been waiting -- she cleared her throat, held up her manacles as far as her strength would allow, and recited the following:

"My love for life depends
Upon a free word given,
And no restraint
On the emphasis of my being.
I have flown my way,
Even as the birds have died;
One by one we all fly
Into an identical silence
That describes our purpose
In the world."

Tristine lowered her manacles and closed her mouth so only the defiance in her eyes could be seen by anyone who bothered to search for her true soul. She thought they were very lovely words; she thought she'd said exactly what she meant, and she had no regret.

The magistrate's thick lips puckered as he stared at Tristine. She thought, perhaps something has seeped into his thoughts, his deepest thoughts where free expression lived. She thought he may have understood, despite the confused murmur of the audience and her mother's unmistakable sobbing. She thought --

The magistrate's lips relaxed into a grimace. "That was -- nice," he said, folding his hands together. "But I'm afraid I'm still going to have to sentence you to termination."

"Crap," said Mr. Hospar. "Well, those are the breaks."

Tristine wheeled around and whacked Mr. Hospar's tubular head with her manacles.

v

Tristine's conduct at her arraignment earned her a speedy arrival at the National Maximum Security and Termination Center. The Center was somewhere in a secret location where the dregs of society couldn't possibly contaminate the status quo, which was fine by Tristine, because it was in a very nice pastoral setting. She stayed in her own confinement cell for a long time before anyone actually spoke to her. She had a private bathroom and a desk and a comfortable bed. The cell was actually larger than her room in the condo. And she was allowed to open a secure window every morning which looked out over a verdant meadow.

She was surprised one morning when someone aside from the robotic guards came through her cell door. A woman, somewhat older than Tristine's mother, an asymmetrical brunette, perfectly ordinary appearing in all respects, sat on the edge of Tristine's bed and said hello.

"I'm Ms. Gardiner," the woman said. Tristine thought she was very pretty, even for an asymmetrical brunette. She seemed to radiate -- she couldn't decide. Was it kindness? Understanding? Maturity? Perhaps it was all three things.

"How much longer," Tristine said a little uncertainly from the chair by her desk, "before my termination, Ms. Gardiner? Will it be painful?"

"It's not going to happen at all, Tristine," said Ms. Gardiner.

Tristine blinked. "I don't understand. Have I been pardoned?"

"Oh, no, nothing like that. I'm afraid you're still guilty of crimes against society. But there are extenuating circumstances."

"Oh?"

"Yes." Ms. Gardiner crossed her legs and moved her hands in small, elegant circles. She was very graceful. And her voice was soft, harmonious. "You see, violating conscription is the worst possible thing a person can do in our country. It throws everything off. If everyone rebelled against the system, what would become of society?"

"Maybe it would be for the best."

"But we have a peaceful society, Tristine. We have a fine society. More people are happier now than have ever been in history. Crime is nonexistent. The population is closely managed. It's as close to paradise as any society has ever been."

Tristine frowned.

"Of course, you disagree," Ms. Gardiner said. "That's precisely why you're in this institution. And you must be made an example of before the world."

"But you said I wasn't going to be terminated."

"And you won't be. You'll remain here for the rest of your life. We are a civilized nation, Tristine. We don't kill people. We just pretend to kill people. You can't buy that kind of public relations effectiveness any other way. Others see your example and quell their primitive resistance. Life goes on, they go on to become productive citizens and society is maintained. It's a beautiful system, despite what you think."

"I think it's crazy."

"And the world thinks you're crazy. And that you're going to die because of it."

"But I'm not really going to die."

"No, but they'll see you go nevertheless. Molecular disassembly. Fast and painless, and infinitely stageable."

Tristine sat for a moment lost in her own thoughts. She was completely out of bright ideas, and the thought of remaining in the institution forever didn't even seem preferable to molecular disassembly.

"What will you make me do?" Tristine asked. "I'd rather die than be forced to be anything other -- "

"You'll do whatever you want to do," Ms. Gardiner said, and she smiled. "You'll just have to do it while confined in this institution."

"Will I be able to write poetry?"

"If you wish."

Tristine's excitement lasted only a brief moment. "But no one will ever experience what I write, will they?"

Ms. Gardiner's smile became positively enigmatic.

####

Tristine was able to view her own death, along with millions of other people around the world. She watched her mother weep forcefully as the cloaked figure was marched into the Disassembly Chamber. An orchestra played a sorrowful dirge to accompany the procession. And even Davio, the National Poet, read a fair elegy (though the subtext mentioned duty, honor and mistaken intent much more emphatically than her free spirit or quiet inner beauty). All in all Tristine thought it was an absurd ceremony, and she wrote a poem about it afterward. She wrote hundreds of poems in her time at the Center, perhaps thousands. She had a lovely speaking voice, too, and became the institution's most beloved intellectual entertainer. After all, the cells were full of prisoners who were incarcerated for espousing one immortal truth or another. In comparison, it wasn't a bad life, certainly not like the life that waited for her beyond the institution's walls. She really enjoyed being a poet. One day, while watching the holo and idly trying to capture an elusive sestina, she happened to find a program of certified poets reading their compositions to the world. At first she was outraged when she heard Davio's latest effort -- because it was one of her poems -- and then she remembered her conversation with Ms. Gardiner long ago, about the possibility of anyone ever experiencing her poetry. Then she felt much better.

At the very least, Davio's poetry improved immeasurably over the years.

THE END


© 2008 Lawrence Buentello

Bio: Lawrence Buentello lives in San Antonio, Texas. His fiction has appeared in Over My Dead Body, Mobius, Ray Gun Revival, Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, and Zahir. He is also the co-author (along with John Buentello) of the short story collection Binary Tales and the novel Reproduction Rights.

E-mail: Lawrence Buentello

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