Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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The Sad

by A. A. Garrison



Kalian navigates the wide and crowded corridors of Living Quarters 4-C, the ubiquitous lighting leaving nothing to the imagination. His footsteps go unheard, drowned by orphaned words, exclamatory coughs, the odd clang of metal. And the wagons, of course, four purring wheels for each of Kalian's countrymen.

The wagons -- simple creations for all their importance, little more than a short bed on wheels -- trail faithfully behind their owners, tethered by thick black cables plugged indiscreetly into the neck. The boxy Machines grace each tiny bed, secured with two taut straps. Requiring such a large footprint, the wagons buffer each member of the crowd, resulting in a comfortable dispersion of bodies. The autonomous carts keep steady pace with their masters, neither lagging, nor riding their heels; the wagons move Just Right, as engineered by The Bastion's expert craftsman. In fact, in the late year of 2592, few things fall short of that sterling standard. Very few.

The throng reflects the utopian paradigm: spines arrow-straight, a smile for each nose, body language nakedly congruous -- as it should be. With everything Just Right, there's no choice but to smile, smile, smile. Since the blessing that is the Inthance Machine -- or the Intelligence Enhancement Machine, if you fancy -- there's been very little frowning in The Bastion. Once man learned to artificially augment his intelligence, he started seeing the sunny side of things, it seems.

Yet one face, boyishly keen, and framed by downy blond locks, remains disparate from the crowd: that of Kalian Pardoe. It's not that Kalian lacks a smile; his is just subtly inferior to that of those around him. At first glance Kalian's smile may seem satisfactory, even at second; but upon close scrutiny, a strained artificiality is seen there, for the mind behind it has grown troubled as of late.

Troubled...

One could argue that, in this marvelous day and age, an eligible young man such as Kalian has little to find trouble with, man having conquered the old demons of pain, hunger, and disease. He lives in The Bastion, sheltered from the scarred desolation of the Outside; he comes from a happy, loving family; he has his faithful Inthance to pamper his neurology -- he lives in the golden age of humanity, one could argue.

So why be troubled?

####

The Sad, The Sad, The Sad. Kalian could think of nothing else. The feeling, that dim, black, wrong feeling, dwelt obstinately at the back of his head, lying in wait like a mud puddle. It had been two days since the... incident, and several times he had felt himself begin to forget, allow The Sad to slip into the foggy depths of his unconscious. But it had always come back, springing to the forefront of his thoughts and dancing there. Now, however, fresh from the Living Quarters' infirmary, he was going home, and that should put paid to it all. Hopefully.

Kalian broke from the smiling crowd and into a smaller hallway, the artery leading to his family's apartment warren. The hallway's pneumatic hatch opened deferentially, parting into four and disappearing into the walls before hissing closed. His footfalls grew audible in the new quiet, along with his thoughts. Maybe the crowd wasn't so bad.

He traveled the empty gangway, ardently aware of anyone approaching. Upon sensing another, Kalian's faltering grin would lift into a proper smile, at least until the two had cleared each other's wagons and gained safe distance. A new feeling accompanied this specious behavior, something akin to that blackness in the back of his head. (In another time, when there was such a thing as crime, Kalian may have called this criminal.)

A glass panel approached from his left, interrupting the narrative of opaque metal panels. Kalian stopped to look, his wagon halting obediently in tandem. The supply hall sat beyond, fabricators and fabrication powders stored in formidable metal drums stacked four-high, the building blocks of a giant-child. The hall's custodian, a small dark-skinned woman, idled at a desk near the glass, oblivious to her admirer. Kalian shifted his focus back and forth, between the labyrinthine supply hall and his own reflection:

The woman, smiling radiantly at no one, her neck-tether reaching below the counter...

The long impassivity of Kalian's face, his wild blond hair...

The continuum of drums, stretching into the depths...

His forest-green jumpsuit, fastidiously buttoned...

Seeing the radiant woman, Kalian discovered another new feeling, and though this one was as foreign and nameless as the criminality wrought by faking his smile, he had experienced it often since the incident and his trip to the infirmary. It was another black, somehow low feeling, and it seemed to answer the effortless smiles of his fellow man. It would always start the same: Kalian pining over how it used to be him wearing that carefree smile, him occupying that carefree world, him without this unnamable burden. Then would come that ugly new stirring, poison to his insides. (Like criminality, envy was a concept alien to Kalian.)

He stared ruefully at the supply woman. I had that once, he thought, not without some contempt. I was oblivious, like her, and I threw it away.

And what, exactly, had he thrown away? His... smiliness, was that the word? And what had he thrown it away for? Nothing, absolutely nothing -- unless you counted truth. Yes, he now knew the truth about The Sad, had experienced it firsthand and known its germlike reality. But had it honestly been worth scratching that itch? The question had plagued him for the last two days, unanswerable.

Sighing, he turned from the window and the woman, shrugging off the dark feelings conjured by her smiliness. He walked on and his wagon intelligently followed, like a pet. He began reciting -- internally -- the cover story he had fed the folks at the infirmary, and there immediately came that peculiar sense of duplicity, the same he'd felt when forcing his smile for the passersby. Would these feelings ever end? Between this, coveting the others' smiliness, and the recurring thoughts of The Sad, his mind seemed stuck in a carousel of unsmiley sentiment. It was somehow like a rainy day, he thought.

Pushing these thoughts away, he forced himself to recount his imaginary version of the incident, committing it to memory. It seemed important he keep the account consistent between the infirmary staff and his parents, who would surely want to know what had befallen their son two days ago.

After ensuring his solitude with a couple furtive glances, he said, "I slipped and fell while getting out of bed." He weighed the lie in his mind, rolling the words back and forth as if tasting fine food, and they sounded believable enough. He walked on.

"I slipped and fell while getting out of bed," he repeated, a little firmer this time, a little more even. "And the next thing I knew I was in the infirmary and my neck felt funny." Yes, it sounded true enough. He had fed the spiel to several at the infirmary, and they seemed to have bought it; he'd even overheard a nurse calling his parents, and she spoke without a hint of doubt. Though, would anyone even suspect him of lying? Had anyone ever so much as attempted what he had so fatefully accomplished? Well, anyone except Stein...

Kalian continued down the corridor, for the apartment he shared with his parents and sisters. With the lie cemented, his mind wandered to the actuality of the incident, as though for reasons of balance. Kalian's stomach made a noise.

It had started innocent enough, as a routine mythology assignment two weeks prior to the incident. Mr. Trancee, Kalian's mythology instructor, had led the class into a new area of study, one concerned primarily with the late cultural myths of pre-Bastion mankind, those most prominent in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It was while researching a paper on this subject that Kalian first learned of The Sad.

He was poking through the library's research network, wading the various quirks and inanities of the centuries-old people, when he stumbled across a short article that proved fascinating. Written by a Wilhelm Stein in the year 2487, over a century ago, the article had discussed a curiosity that Stein called, simply, The Sad, something he had apparently researched for much of his life. The article had included extensive references to The Sad in archaic documents, some dating back thousands of years. There were songs, poems, paintings, books; chemicals, even, with jagged names like "Paxil" and "Zoloft" and "Prozac" -- all created in homage to The Sad, from what Kalian could gather. Stein had originally thought this Sad a kind of deity or god, one of legion erected by the old people for purposes unknown, but after decades of research, he had come to refine that theory, instead postulating that The Sad was actually a state of mind rather than something external, one that had become somehow vestigial with the inception of the Inthance Machine.

Kalian's attention had been hooked since unearthing that first intriguing article, fueled by a single burning question: How was he not aware of this fantastic thing, The Sad? He'd heard nothing of it growing up, from his parents nor his teachers nor his school-mates; it hadn't even found its way into his mythology curriculum, to which it seemed quite germane. He got the sense he'd been denied some vital piece of history, and for reasons unclear. From this thought his hunger for Stein's work had sprung, sending him on a kind of scavenger hunt throughout the library.

Kalian went on to dredge up a handful of Stein's articles, the omnibus reading as a kind of impersonal diary. According to the piecemeal writings, Stein's research had in time consumed his life, gripping him with nothing less than obsession, and after years of this, he had at last devised a pathology on The Sad and its nature, what he said shook the foundations of modern psychological dogma. According to one of Stein's last articles -- written in 2512, just before he went abruptly silent -- he had claimed that The Sad state could be reached by unplugging oneself from the Inthance Machine, operating on the idea that the Inthance somehow dulled the mind instead of enriching it. Stein claimed to have unplugged his own neck-tether on several occasions, each experiment allowing him to directly experience The Sad and its effects. In Stein's words, experiencing The Sad was "life-changing," so much to beggar description for those not personally initiated. According to his doctrine, there exists an entire world of sentiment forbidden to those inhabiting "the glass prison imposed by the Machine."

The articles had stopped then, with the last of them documenting Stein's heretical claims to have actually disconnected his Machine. As preposterous as they were -- everyone knew the Machine did only good, with disconnection utterly unconscionable -- the articles had held a strange allure to Kalian, fed chiefly by their themes of rebellion and heterodoxy. Who was this Stein fellow to repudiate the entire brain-trust of The Bastion, encouraging people to unplug their Machines? It was ridiculous, insane... but attractive, all the same -- especially considering society's collective oversight of Stein and his pursuits. It would come to forge Kalian's own obsession with the doctrine.

While at first innocuous -- healthy, even -- Kalian's preoccupation with Wilhelm Stein and his Sad exploded over the next two weeks, burgeoning in the dark of Kalian's mind like a fungus. For Kalien, Stein's bizarre research began as a novelty, occupying the space normally reserved for a hobby or girlfriend; but slowly it gobbled up more and more of his thoughts, until he found himself spending whole days chewing over Stein's ideas.

The Sad, The Sad, The Sad -- what must it feel like to unplug from the Inthance, to taste that profane and forbidden fruit? It was how one marooned must feel upon seeing a vessel at sea, Kalian thought. Endowed with his Machine and its concomitant wagon since birth -- as all were in the twenty-sixth century, per Bastion law -- he lacked any abstraction whatsoever of what one may experience upon disengaging their neck-tether, nor had he so much as considered such altered states prior to reading Stein. And so, like a well-cultivated seed, his fixation with The Sad had grown.

However, having devoured Stein's articles to the point of memorization, he was left without aliment for his obsession, and this would prove the motivation behind an after-school visit with Mr. Trancee, the negligent teacher in charge of Mythology 101. Kalian assumed the man a wellspring on the subject, considering his credentials, but consulting Mr. Trancee was something Kalian would come to regret.

The visit transpired a week and a half after Kalian's discovery of Stein, just days before the incident that would send him to the infirmary. After school, Kalian had found Mr. Trancee in his wide-open dormitory, lording over the unoccupied rows of double-wide desks (crafted as such to harbor both student and wagon, in harmony with The Bastion's outsize motif). Kalian had entered timidly; Mr. Trancee, a large, bald, bespectacled man traversing middle-age, was not his favorite teacher, and he wouldn't have initiated this extra-curricular visit if not for his rabid hunger for knowledge. But enter he had, and imperiously struck up a conversation with the man. After exchanging pleasantries, Kalian had broached the subject without prelude, and a comedy of wits ensued.

While at first genial enough, Mr. Trancee's face had changed the moment Kalian mentioned his subject of inquiry. It stood out vividly in Kalian's mind, as he had never seen such a countenance before: Mr. Trancee's smile had remained intact, but it took on a slightly forced quality -- the same as Kalian's following the incident, ironically. Mr. Trancee had listened attentively, but in lieu of answering Kalian's many questions, he had replied with one of his own: "And just where did you hear about that?" he'd asked, with an air of coy surprise, all the while retaining that pained smile.

Kalian had responded with an overview of his romance with Stein and The Sad, from their accidental discovery to Stein's conclusions. When Kalian had at last finished, winded, he was met not with the encomium he had expected, but with laughter. Stein was a fibber, Mr. Trancee had said, in a tone that Kalian had thought studied. Gainsaying without apology, Mr. Trancee had gone on to explain how Stein was well known for waging a twenty-year war with the scientific establishment, though the basis for his many attacks was nothing more than subjective personal experiences, all highly questionable. "If I were a betting man," Trancee had said in a merry cadence, visibly amused, "I'd gamble that Stein never once unplugged his Machine."

Kalian had shrunk, feeling a little like he did now, actually (but not for long: being before the incident and its lingering aftermath, the unsmiley feelings had just melted away on their own, replaced by the insouciance to which Kalian was accustomed). When strategizing this conversation, Kalian had envisioned Mr. Trancee raising his brows upon hearing of Wilhelm Stein and The Sad, perhaps commending his student on disinterring something of such import. He hadn't foreseen this denunciation, and it was crushing, striking Kalian speechless.

Trancee, perhaps seizing on his student's debasement, had then continued his sermon, broadening it into other areas. He had compared Stein's Sad to the Pain mythos, explaining gently how things like The Sad simply weren't real, were little more than pre-Machine superstition, regardless of how much the old people had yakked about them. Speaking in the didactic drawl of one addressing a small child, he had expertly indoctrinated Kalian on how The Sad -- and Pain, and Sick, and Hate, all those quixotic old boogiemen -- were nothing but conventions of an ignorant past, all vanquished by the Inthance Machine. They were living in an enlightened age now, Mr. Trancee had said, and no one in their right mind believed in things like The Sad anymore. "You'd just as soon believe in God," had been his summation.

Kalian had patiently endured the heart-rending speech, and though he'd nodded politely and said thank you when Mr. Trancee's lips stopped moving, he accepted none of it. Being sixteen, Kalian may have been a touch tabula rasa, but he had a precociously firm grasp on logic, and it was lucidly clear that his teacher's platform was nothing more than opinion and conjecture, the very things he had branded Stein's work. Who was Mr. Trancee to shoot down Wilhelm Stein's decades of research, with only a dismissive smile and some sensible-sounding persuasions? How did he know that Stein hadn't unplugged his Machine and explored the giant, pulsing question mark of the unknown?

Though Kalian was not yet the disaffected young man he would become, Mr. Trancee's obduracy would come to play a vital role in what followed, for in finding his last avenue of pursuit a cul-de-sac, Kalian was therefore forced to contemplate extreme measures to sate his lust for knowledge.

The following night, while still battling the discussion's unpleasant aftertaste, Kalian would for the first time consider the unconsiderable, that verboten act that was untenable even in theory: to unplug his Inthance Machine from the base of his neck.

####

Kalian continued through the mazy corridors and into the heart of Living Quarters 4-C, the borough he called home. The Quarters lay at the eastern reaches of the insular mega-city, one of dozens. He had considered taking the tram for his homecoming, but he needed to think before approaching his parents, hence the walk. Thirty minutes later, the beltway opened into the main tenancy circle and he was in the Quarters proper. The circle was actually star-shaped, a gargantuan rowel within the cylinder that was the Quarters. Rows upon rows of windowless apartments convened at a balconied atrium, its bottom imperceptible. Everywhere was soulless metal: the grated floors, the unmannered doors, the foreboding railings, the signs directing the citizenry. The only exception to this rule was the atrium's domed skylight, its convex pane showcasing the earth's debauched skies. Kalian had always questioned the architects' decision to employ skylights in The Bastion's construction; why anyone would want to see the planet's poison-green atmosphere was beyond him.

Kalian permitted himself a brief, reassuring look at 4-C -- his Bastion equivalent of a home town -- then started for the lower decks, to his family in apartment 111291. They would be expecting him by now, him having walked. He boarded one of the nearby lifts, filing in with a small congress of jumpsuit-clad people and their wagons. The car descended three stories down, the Quarters' heft rungs passing gracefully. Then he was home, opening the octagonal front hatch and stepping inside. Purposeful footsteps sounded before his wagon had cleared the jamb.

"Kalian?" a female voice called through the cavernous apartment. Mother. "Is that you?"

"It's me," Kalian called, and as Mother appeared in the vestibule, her wagon trailing like a lemming child, he momentarily forgot The Sad, and the incident, and all the forbidden things to which he'd become privy over these last two days. This respite wouldn't last long, he knew -- the feelings always came back, like bad pennies on strings -- but he welcomed it with open arms.

Mother shuffled into the unfurnished vestibule, bright-eyed, the legs of her jumpsuit chafing loudly -- swish-swish-swish. "My son!" she squealed, and extended her arms in a T.

The door hissed shut, and Kalian steeled himself for the hug imminent, smiling easily for the first time in two days.

She wrapped around him and delivered a volley of kisses to Kalian's pumice young cheeks, her ferocious embrace betraying her spare frame. "How's Kalian, how's my boy?" she asked, drawing back.

"I'm fine," he lied, hoping he didn't sound as guarded as he thought. The black feelings reared up then, and he fought a savage desire to spill his guts -- I feel unsmiley, Mom, unsmiley, and it won't stop. But this was neither the time nor the place, he knew, and he let the lie stand. Maybe he would come clean someday, later in life, when he had sorted things out. But for now... he would be Fine. Paix la maison.

"They patch you up, all better?" she asked, and smooched him again.

"Yep," Kalian said, again forced to consciously peel his lips from his teeth -- Unsmiley, unsmiley.

"Glad to hear," Mother said. She pumped one final hug and then released him, lowering from her tiptoes. "They treat you okay at the infirmary, yeah? They have so few customers there, you know, so little practice." She stared intently, affection in every feature.

Suddenly, Kalian wanted her to turn away: he yearned to be alone (yet more new sentiment to add to his collection).

"Yeah," he answered, those rancid thoughts freight-training through his head, trying to escape. "They were fine."

"Good, good," she said, straightening. With a tender pat on the shoulders, she mercifully turned and started through the hallway, her wagon mimicking her exactly. "Madeline! Currie!" she called as she walked. "Your brother's home!"

Kalian followed her into the excessively wide hall, foot and wagon clinking over the metal tongue of floor. Madeline and Currie, his twin eight-year-old sisters, awaited him in the apartment's sterile living room, luxuriating in opposing recliners. Dressed in their rote pink jumpsuits, the caramel-haired girls slumped languidly in the plush seats, the eyes open and unseeing. Matching crocodile smiles reached for their ears, striking them fiendishly happy. They showed no response to Kalian's arrival, and he saw why: cables snaked from the floor and into the girls' Machines. Cognition lines. The twins were jacked into the Quarters' virtual-reality server, probably cavorting with unicorns or princesses or candy-colored bears. Unaware of their big brother, in any case.

Still fielding that urge to cloister himself away, Kalian stopped just beyond his vegetating siblings. Standing over them, he discovered yet another new emotion, this one outright weird. Feeling around it, he was overwhelmed with a sense of... abnormality? Was that it? Seeing someone on a cognition line had never made him feel this way before -- but, then again, that was before. He was seeing things differently now, and he supposed this should be expected. As he explored the feeling, a word came to mind, one he recalled digging up while researching outmoded terms for his mythology course: spooky. And yes, that fit; seeing his sisters on the cog' was spooky.

"I'll be in my room for a while," Kalian said to Mother, and started for the other end of the apartment, repulsed by his comatose sisters.

"Okay, dear," she said, ever-smiling -- she certainly wasn't feeling unsmiley. "I'll call you at dinnertime." She leaned warmly in the yawning kitchen doorway, the menacing fabricator machine at her back. The fabricator was a barrel-shaped outrage of metal and glass, set discordantly in the kitchen like an elephant amongst gazelles. It, too, struck Kalian as strange, for some reason he couldn't ascribe.

He broke from the living room and his sisters, making his escape.

####

Kalian reclined meditatively over his bed, the same he had fallen from in his fictional version of the incident. His neck-tether snaked through the ad-hoc hole in his pillow, furrowing the bed's drab coverlet. Tracing the metal ceiling panels as he always did in bed, he again recounted his cover story -- fell off the bed, woke up in the infirmary, don't remember nothin' -- but upon doing so, the truth reared its ugly head, as if to say hello.

The days following his unsettling meeting with Mr. Trancee had been marked with high hopes and frenzied contemplation, and after much dancing around the prospect, he had two days ago found it to execute his plan. It was a Saturday, and the perfect opportunity. Father would be at work (he was a harvester, every day donning a tremendous exoskeleton and venturing Outside to gather things to be refined into fabrication powder); and Mother would have the twins at ballet, leaving Kalian to pursue The Sad by himself. Kalian had found this propitious, as Stein had left no clue regarding what one could expect upon disconnecting their Machine. Stein had only described the experience as indescribable, impossible to transcribe into words, which left much to the unknown. For all Kalian knew, he would find The Sad in an paroxysm of enlightenment, one in which self-control was forfeit -- chancy in the presence of his unwashed family, as it were. So, after fabricating breakfast and waiting patiently for the others to decamp, he'd gone to his room and taken the plunge.

The plan was simple: his virgin unplugging would be quick and cautious, no more than thirty seconds, with the option of early termination were it to go wrong. And were it to go right -- whatever "right" entailed -- his second experiment would last longer. Indefinitely, if he so chose.

However, there would be only one unplugging.

When blowing smoke to the infirmary staff, Kalian had told the truth about one thing: he did fall out of bed, but this had been a consequence of his malady rather than its cause. After exchanging goodbyes with the female half of his family, he had closed his bedroom hatch and made himself comfortable over his bed, basking in the hush of the spartan room. Squinting, he had then depressed the tether's emergency disengagement button, what he was never, ever, ever supposed to press, and jerked the cable climactically free. Internally, the unplugging had unfolded with the slow, grating procession of a sunrise, and once the cable was dislodged, a cool sensation had filled the resulting receptacle, air touching nerve-endings that had never known stimulation. Several long moments had followed, and Kalian had initially felt no different, same as always -- smiley, as he knew it now. Then, all at once, everything changed.

The room had dimmed. He remembered that foremost, as it would herald the calamity to come. The "dimming" had been mental rather than physical, as if someone had flipped off a light in his head, one that had been burning for his entire sixteen years. Things changed then, though he couldn't quite put his finger on how. Everything was just different, perhaps that ineffable alteration Stein had reported in his papers -- The Sad, in other words. But this would prove erroneous: The Sad was yet to come.

It was then that Kalian, transfixed with the budding phenomenon, had slipped mindlessly from the bed, sending him to the unforgiving metal floor. His right shoulder had taken the brunt of the fall, colliding with the steely floor panel, and that's when the real shift began, namely the unpleasant sensation in his impacted clavicle. As he recovered, the plaintive shoulder had spurred a rush of thought: first an infantile curiosity, as he had never known anything remotely similar; then a remarkable terror, making him wince and cry out. He had no word for the stinging feeling, but one thing was frighteningly certain: this was not smiley, not smiley at all.

Then had come the ultimate effects of the unplugging, what would mark Kalian's sea-change. Faced with his unsmiley shoulder and the general turmoil of the unplugging, his mind had responded with an alarmed sense of helplessness. He discerned a key part of his psychology -- maybe his brain itself -- grasping for something, something suddenly missing. The sensation had evoked a hand groping through a dark space, searching for what simply wasn't there. Looking back, Kalian pegged that as the precise moment his smiliness slipped away. To be replaced by none other than The Sad.

Crumpled over the floor, Kalian had found what he would come to call "the blackness" spreading from the back of his head, seeming to corrupt every cell of his body. His shoulder still aching -- what he now knew as Pain, damn Trancee and his dogma -- he had stood uncertainly and stumbled from the bedside, his legs weak and leaden, feeling much like the metal architecture surrounding him. Thoughts spewed through his mind, and though each involved fixtures he had known his entire life -- The Bastion, the Quarters, his family, his teachers -- they all seemed so different, and not in a smiley way. He was seeing through that "dim" new light that had swallowed his mind, and the view was troubling. That hungry blackness seemed to have covered the world with him, as though reality itself suffered his new taint.

It was then, as Kalian doddered in his bedroom, that a part of him screamed for the plug, for the Machine, for whatever magic its "Intelligence Enhancement" worked, and, being neck-deep in his debilitated state -- in The Sad -- Kalian was more than happy to oblige. But before he could do so, disaster: his clumsy new legs sent him flailing to the floor, the uncoupled neck-tether in hand. In his shock, he put out his hands to defray his fall, thereby jamming the tether's spiked end into a floor rung and bending it incorrigibly, into a gnarled L.

The color leaving him, Kalian had made several attempts to correct the crooked end-piece, but this was futile, and that was when The Sad had come in spades. Just as a rose spites misnomers, so panic exists, and Kalian discovered the crazed state without knowing its name. Staring obliquely, he had stood with the ruined neck-tether for what felt like forever, his brain still grasping for the "Intelligence Enhancement" and coming up terrifically empty.

And then the weirdest thing had happened: water began leaking from his eyeballs. Water... from his eyes! Like two little sinks, they'd been. This had sent him over the edge, and he had begun to shriek -- not any specific words, just random guttural noises, his larynx running on autopilot. He'd then broken from his room and sprinted drunkenly through the apartment, an exclamation point with legs. (It was the first time he'd moved free of his wagon, but he failed to appreciate this in his upheaval.) He careered through the sequence of wide-open rooms, crying idiot words and toweling eye-water from his face. The black thoughts had just kept coming, bringing their alien perceptions with them, and Kalian had slipped deeper and deeper into a crazed mode of existence to which there was no precedent. This went on for some indeterminable amount of time, and the next thing Kalian knew he was dialing the infirmary, pleading for help, because his eyeballs were melting, he was dying -- !

Kalian snapped to over the bed, pawing his face to wipe away eye-water that wasn't there. The memories haunted him now, even after the kind folk at the infirmary had repaired his neck-tether and drove it home. With his Machine again operational, he no longer experienced that "grasping" feeling -- his brain had reclaimed what it was missing, apparently -- but even so, things just weren't the same. Getting back on the "Intelligence Enhancement" had combated The Sad and its corrupting effects, but the memories, and their cognate perceptions, remained, like a cancer in remission but far from defeated.

As Kalian lay in his own bed for the first time in two nights, he made a simple but troubling decision: there could be no more lying about the incident. It dawned on him in the quiet way all momentous choices are made. He knew he had to tell the truth, knew that keeping it inside would only make it fester and grow, as it had been doing these last two days. Considering the preceding forty-eight hours, he shuddered to think of how things might be in a week. Or a year.

The Sad, The Sad, The Sad. Despite being dispelled by the Machine's reinstatement, the state still gripped Kalian, molding his thoughts and laughing at his strife. For all his attempts to disavow the memories, one fact precluded his efforts: the experience and its ramifications rang of truth, concretizing their sway over him. Everything he'd experienced within that "dim" space -- the unsmiley thoughts, the broadened perceptions, the smarting Pain in his shoulder -- had felt indubitably real, far more than anything he'd known hitherto. He tried to marginalize The Sad as a bad dream, an illusion, a transitory thing that held no purchase in the real world -- a virtual-reality instance on a cog' line, perhaps. But, lamentably, this was not the case: as much as he would like to believe otherwise, he knew in his heart that The Sad's dim headspace was the real world. The Machine's warm reality was the illusion, the dream, the unfounded fantasy to be shunned and divorced, and as inconvenient as this was, it confirmed Stein's doctrine, that the Machine really did dull the mind to some greater and turbulent reality lying beyond the fastnesses of traditional existence.

And did Kalian not bear a civic responsibility to share these tidings, ill as they may be?

So... no more lies. Besides the raging need to relieve himself of his burden, it seemed morally wrong to keep this to himself. It was brutally clear that others must know of the Machine's neurological tomfoolery, how it clouded the mind to reality. After some thought, Kalian decided his crusade would start that very night, at dinner, with his parents.

####

Father and the twins claimed half of the cantilevered table dominating the kitchen, their wagons tucked primly beneath the bench. Kalian sat opposite the three, four feet and a million miles away. His facial muscles threatened cramps; maintaining the pretense stung, a Sad in itself. His speech weighed on him with almost physical presence, but still he waited. Such profundity would require expedience, he knew, and so, like a crouching tiger, he sat quietly, the words stewing inside him.

Mother slid a billowing pot-roast before her family, the sapid odor suffusing the room. Father and the twins eyed it hungrily; Kalian may not have noticed it at all.

"And how was the infirmary?" Father asked from over the roast, looking weary as ever but wearing a beaming smile. "Any cute nurses catch your eye?"

"It was fine, no nurses," Kalian mumbled through fatigued lips.

"Baked beans or mashed potatoes?" Mother asked from across the room, beside the giant green fabricator machine.

"Potatoes," Father said unhesitantly.

Madeline and Currie exchanged a quick, knowing look, that reserved for twins and conspirators. "Poe-tay-tows!" they parroted, and laughed.

"Potatoes," Kalian said, somber as a grave.

Accepting this plurality, Mother turned to the fabricator's Bible-thick reference book, thumbing to the P's. "B-fifty-two," she said to herself, then measured an amount of fabricator powder (what Father himself may have contributed to), emptied it into the porthole, and punched B-5-2 over a dental keypad. Activating with a low click, the fabricator hummed happily and then stopped. Mother popped the porthole and removed the resulting bowl of mashed potatoes, its topography whipped into a garnishing little swirl. She set the bowl with the roast, added some bread and green beans to the lot, and then doled out plates and silverware, the meal complete.

"Okay," she said with a pleasant huff, at last tucking her wagon home and joining her family. "Dig in, shall we?"

Father promptly began carving the roast, parceling thin slices with anachronistic pomp.

Kalian swallowed with a click, the burdensome two days feeling heavier than ever. He opened his mouth to speak... then closed it -- not yet. He'd wait just a little longer. He extended his plate and received his portion of roast.

As he sat poking his freshly fabricated food, he found himself revisited by that acidic feeling aroused by the supply-hall woman. Watching his family eat and smile and converse about the day's trivialities... it was maddening. How lucky they all were, blissfully unaware of The Sad and its pall of unsmiliness. The feeling was black, the blackest of them all, really; but even so, Kalian took a masochistic pleasure in it. It was provisional, and as cynical as the feeling itself, but it lit him with a sick glee, like watching bugs die. Embracing this perversion, Kalian thought cheerily of how things would change once he finally dropped the bomb, how he would inflict them with the hell inside him.

With this, Kalian decided it was time, and he again opened his mouth, the malign words welling like vomit --

"So, Kay," Father said abruptly, hands working above the roast, "you mind illuminating us on just what happened Saturday?" He divvied out a razor-thin slice to Mother and then looked evenly to his son, beseeching answer. "The hospital folk just said you had a fall."

This stymied Kalian's train of thought, but he recovered and followed through, ignoring the question: "Have you ever heard of The Sad?" he asked in return, peering at Father over the roast -- which was easier now, in its diminished state. For all their consequence, the words had come so easy, more like exhaling than speaking. His polite tone betrayed his intent.

Father stopped carving. "The Sad?" he replied, incredulously. He was still smiling, but his eyes had gone glassy and distant, something Kalian had never seen in his father before -- but had seen in Mr. Trancee, when Kalian had asked him the very same question.

The silence spun out, then Father said, "No, son, can't say I have." He resumed carving, but that funny look stayed over his face, contrasting with his grinning mouth.

"The Sad?" Mother asked, entertaining a bite of roast. "What's that, dear?" She fixed him with a look of genuine inquiry, the wad of meat bulging in one cheek.

It's reality, Mom, Kalian was ready to say -- ready to inflict. It's big and it's black and it's ugly, and it's waiting for you, to snuff out the light in your head and make things dim. Because that's the way things really are, dim, dim, dim. You only think it's bright because that thing welded to your neck is fooling with your eyes, and you don't even know it.

The words seethed in his insides, and he wanted more than anything to relinquish them to the room, spew them like the vomitous things they were. But before he could do so, something strange happened: the words mulishly refused to leave his mouth. Duty or not, it was suddenly impossible to throw the stones he'd so carefully collected. How could he defile such a sincere and loving woman, strip her of her congeniality like a piece of clothing? And the twins, his darling sisters: how would they react? Would he ever hear their little-girl giggling again, receive their goodhearted teasing, see that crystalline sparkle in their eyes?

But it's the truth! cried a small but penetrating voice. It's the truth, and they must know!

Yes, it was certainly the truth... but did anyone really have to know? After all, what good would come of disabusing others of their ignorance? They were so happy...

Vapor-locked, Kalian happened upon Father's face. Father was still smiling, as always, but the smile had grown thin and wan, as weary as the rest of him, perhaps on strings. Don't, that look said, loud and clear. You can, but don't.

It gave Kalian had a crazy thought: the man knew all about The Sad, had once conducted his own unplugging, perhaps. And now he was reading Kalian's intentions, seeing the blackness there and pleading for Kalian to hold it in. For his mother's sake, for the twins' sake: hold it in.

And again, that niggling question: Why? Why disillusion his mother and sisters, why steal their laughter and serenity, why decimate the ignorance they drew such sustenance from?

The voice answered: Because it's the truth! The truth, truth, TRUTH! But smaller now, and fading, fading...

Kalian looked to Mother --

To Father --

To his undistracted twin sisters --

Looked deep inside himself --

Something in him moved, and he was suddenly speaking: "Oh, nothing, just something I heard at school," he said to Mother, in late reply. "Probably just some new fashion trend."

"Oh, I see," Mother said, satisfied, and returned to chewing, her smile and her ignorance intact.

Kalian, still aghast at what he'd just done, looked back to Father, and the man's face had changed: it was now soft and placid as ever, his eyes shedding their bleary glaze. It once more emoted the perfect complacence Kalian had come to know, the smile refurbished to full capacity. Right answer, Kalian read in his father's eyes, and in that moment, there was no doubt of the man's knowledge of The Sad. He might've been waving a sign.

Kalian felt sick: he'd sold himself out, denied his convictions, ignored his precepts -- Truth, truth, it's the truth! Then, miraculously, these feelings began to lift, that remonstrating voice growing smaller and smaller... and before Kalian knew what was happening, the blackness began to diminish. For the first time in two days, it seemed that wicked tide was receding to the evil sea from whence it came -- and what magic was responsible? What had shattered the millstone he'd carried these last three thousand minutes?

The answer was clear: he'd called The Sad "nothing," and marvelous as it was, that now felt indubitably true. As though just speaking it had made it so, had manufactured a kind of consensual reality, one disparate from objective truth but no less valid -- no less real. Who could refute him, after all? If the truth was his and his alone, then perhaps ignoring it would efface its very existence. It was so easy! Why hadn't he thought of this before? (Had Kalian been riddled on falling trees and empty forests, he would have understood completely.)

The wonderful new possibility sent a salvo of change through Kalian. His mood rose, the blackness receded -- and, just like that, his smiliness returned, and oh how it had been missed. Feeling like hugging everyone in the room, he suppressed a cheer as the blackness evaporated like a puddle in the sun.

As the "dim" thoughts and memories at last retreated, Kalian momentarily touched something both great and horrible. He sensed he'd completed a rite of passage this day, taking his place in some unknowable social machine. He envisioned this quiet juggernaut operating in the underbelly of mankind, keeping the smiles smiling and the world turning, its alien enterprise ignored by all aware of it, perhaps for generations. And now he was part of it, an initiated ignorer, an expert omitter, possessing blind eyes and deaf ears, and blissfully so. He felt as if, with that one word -- Nothing -- he'd become a new person, a very adult person, maybe. (Like so many others, Faustian was a term unknown to him.)

But, like that plaintive voice in his head, this too grew small and abroad, and before long, Kalian was smiling once more, without reservation.

He looked around the table, expecting all eyes to be on him. But no one was looking: his family only tended their dinners, jaws working beneath raised lips, the mood splendid.

Normal, ignorant.

Perfect.

None suspected the dramatic shifting of gears that had transpired inside the teenager in their midst -- except maybe Father, and he wasn't talking.

Kalian regarded his mother. "Mom?" he said, a smiley note in his voice.

She looked up. "Yes, son?"

"Pass the green beans, please," he said, and helped himself to two spoonfuls. They were delicious.

THE END


© 2011 A. A. Garrison

Bio: A. A. Garrison is a twenty-seven-year-old man living in the mountains of western North Carolina, landscaping and writing. His work has recently appeared in Inkspill Magazine and the anthology Rotting Tales. His website is The Chastening Nears.

E-mail: A. A. Garrison

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