An Argument In Favor of A Social Conscience
An Argument In Favor of
A Social Conscience
By Gary Glass
Max pulls a glass from the basin and stares out into the Main Room. The Mare Inebrium overflows with activity. Those not seated eye those who are, each one vying for the first open stool that makes itself available. Trixie glides between with practiced grace, taking orders as she lithely slips through the throng. The crowd parts to let Blanche pass through on the other side, a tray full of drinks floating securely on her outstretched arm.
Business is good.
"I'd like a Zombie!" someone hollers out to whoever might be listening behind the bar. Larrye points and nods. Max hands him the cleaned glass.
"I knew you'd get the hang of this," he says with a smirk.
Larrye stops midstep. "What was that?"
Max shakes his head and reaches for another glass. "Never mind." Larrye shrugs and shuffles back to the customer.
He turns. A younger man with angular features and an inordinately long neck waves for his attention. Max steps over.
"What can I do for you?"
The man leans in as close as the patrons seated in front of him will allow. "I need to talk to the owner."
"He's not here. I'm in charge when he's gone."
"In that case, we need to speak... in private."
"As you can see," Max gestures to the multitudes in the Main Room, "that might be a bit difficult. Unless you know of a good bartender on this short of notice, it'll have to wait."
"Got a digi-pad?"
Nodding, Max reaches into his pocket and hands one over. By the time Max stacks the dry glass and grabs another, the man returns the pad.
"You need to read that," he says with definite urgency. Max looks at the message. In bold letters it reads, "CLASH ALERT."
Max's head snaps up. "If this is a joke--"
"Trust me." The man points to the Boardroom. "Can you talk now?"
Max grimaces and takes off the apron. Order after order lob at him as he passes. He ignores them all. Stopping just long enough to tell Larrye he'll be gone for a few minutes, Max leads the stranger to the Boardroom.
Six sets of eyes swivel at them as they step inside. Max tilts his head apologetically. "Sorry, I need the room for a few. Tell Trixie and Blanche it's 'madness'." Several recognize it as the night's code word for free rounds and peacefully depart, dragging those not in the know along with them.
Max glares at the man once the room is clear. "What's your story?"
The man hands him a badge. "I'm Lenex vin Abd of the Social Conscience."
Max looks over the badge and nervously sighs. The largest organized group of empaths and telepaths in the known universe, the Social Conscience strives to maintain the fragile balance between the natural and exi-natural worlds. Before their formation over a century ago, Max heard countless horror stories told by patrons who seemed too drunk to remember their own names. He used to dismiss such tales as nothing more than hallucinogenic musings by the local locos. When word spread about the Social Conscience and what their purpose was, however, he had a very sudden change of heart. His opinion completed the one-eighty some fifteen years ago after a close encounter of his own out near the Kilrath Forest at the edge of the bombed-out ruins of the eastern Kefa city, Kefa-arndt.
"I guess it's too much to hope that you're here on vacation."
"Unfortunately, no." He sprays a view screen on the table and activates it. The blueprints of the entire building flares up and rotates before him. The walls disappear as the view zooms in to the ground floor. When it finally stops, Max recognizes the floor plans of the Mare Inebrium.
"A Valora is on its way," Lenex explains. "Expected time of arrival is nine minutes. Eight of our agents are situated throughout your establishment and ready for action." He taps the screen. Eight blue dots glow into view: three in the Main Room and one each in the Mars, Frontier, Arabian Knights, Club and Known Space Rooms. "We have five more agents who have yet to get into position." He taps the screen again to reveal five yellow dots representing where they're supposed to be in the unaccounted-for adjoining rooms.
"I need you to give them access to these locations as soon as possible," Lenex continues. "The quicker we can put them in place without raising questions, the smoother all this will be."
Max soberly nods. A clash alert? Here? He shakes his head.
"The bar's armed with all the appropriate measures," he offers to Lenex.
"Excellent. When I give you the signal, activate them. We don't want to lose a single soul." Max nods again and starts to stride out the door. "Before you leave," Lenex quickly interjects, "I was hoping to go ahead and get your permission beforehand."
Max furrows his brow in confusion. "Permission for what?" Lenex points at his own temple. "Ah, that." He hesitates a moment, then nods.
"Thank you." Lenex respectfully bows his head in gratitude.
Max takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. It takes no time at all for Lenex's mind to probe his own and stroll inside. Though the sensation of another sentience in his head is more than a little disconcerting, Max shrugs it off and goes about the task at hand.
As he exits the Boardroom his eyes automatically dart to the three individuals standing where the dots were on the blueprint. A D'rrish female casually talks with Kazch-Ak at a far table. Blanche serves the second agent, a swarthy man with a split beard nursing a mug of Bethdish lager. The third, a lank android with uneven ears, idly surveys a portrait of a farming couple holding up a pitchfork on the far wall.
As Max crosses the Main Room, three figures follow closely behind. Realizing he doesn't have time to check them out beyond a brief glance back, he knocks on the Military Room door and pokes his head in. Again, all eyes stare at him.
"Sorry, a friend of mine is trying to avoid an embarrassing situation. If I spot you all two rounds can he hang out in here until it blows over?" They look at one another and shrug. Business can wait a while, especially if free drinks are on the table. Max ushers the first one waiting behind him into the room and shuts the door.
It takes him a quick four minutes to situate the remaining agents. One is described as a well-respected art appraiser doing a favor for the owner, another is introduced as the new bartender on his first day. Once the last agent is put in place, Max darts back to the bar. Out of breath, he stares out into the crowd for Lenex. No luck.
Max glances up at the clock. Thirty seconds to go. Again he scans the Main Room.
"Now," commands a voice in his head.
Max dives under the bar and types the emergency code for the Counter-Clash. His heart in his throat, he stands up and waits.
One by one hover tables fall to knee level, their dim white glow growing more intensely as they drop. Patrons watch in confusion as the color shifts from white to beige to pale blue, hue after hue morphing into one another with tranquil fluidity. Everyone becomes mesmerized by the display; even Max cannot help but stare.
Lulled by Lenex's gentle prodding, time slows as everything grows hazy. Extremely relaxed, Max closes his eyes and dreams...
As soon as Lenex gives the signal to the bartender, he bows his head and shuts his eyes. All in the Social Conscience are trained to have firsthand knowledge of any and all counter-clash measures to assure that they don't suffer the same hypnotic fate as the normals. Making sure none have, Lenex extends his mind out to the other agents. All remain at the ready.
So far, so good.
The light show continues for several more seconds before the lead empath gives the all-clear. Lenex passes the word to the telepaths and sets to work.
The first mind he connects to is a waif barmaid with elfish features. She is thanfully the only one of her race present in the bar. Most telepaths find it daunting to break into one of their minds. Focus, Lenex learned, can accomplish anything. Though the counter-measures fail to make her pliable, it is a matter of seconds before he breaks through and conditions her.
The last ten targets prove no challenge, all having succumbed to the tables' hypnotic spell. As soon as the last soul is buffered, Lenex asks for an update from the other telepaths. One by one they check in. All but six patrons are accounted for. Extending his mind out once more, Lenex realizes they are all unconscious in the adjoining restrooms, knocked out by the counter-measures.
Phase two complete.
Lenex sends the go-ahead to the lead empath. A wave of calm cascades through the Mare Inebrium, all traces of panic and confusion gently washed away. The eleven minds under Lenex's control relax that elicits a sigh of relief. Nothing mroe he can do now but wait.
Music filters from the speakers, a fraction louder than the whir of the ventilation system directly above him. Everything else is silent. No idle chatter, no hoots or hollers from the Game Room, no clinks of glass on countertop.
A reverberation breaks the serenity. The Social Conscience steels itself as one.
A rail thin leg squirts out from the ceiling and lands upright on the floor. It bobs there for a few seconds in a slow, rhythmic dance before bending severly at the knee. As the upper half of the leg comes back up from the floor an abstract arm emerges behind it.
Stretching out to its full height of three meters, the constructed limb starts to undulate back and forth. Four bony fingers wave in ghoulish time with the music, batons directing every note, bouncing about with every change in pitch.
Though used to clash encounters, Lenex cannot help but stare in fascination. Of all the exi-natural races, the Valora are by far the most abstract. Little is known of them beyond their piecemeal entrances and penchants for artistic appreciation, both hallmarks of their kind. It was a Valora who was responsible for the first Culture Clash three hundred years before. Many of those present died of shock, strokes and heart attacks from the impact of seeing the obviously impossible happen right there before their very eyes. The few unlucky enough to survive became irrevocably catatonic.
Only two managed to come out of that first encounter unscathed: a telepath native to the region and a visiting empath. Their reports alerted those in the natural world of their exi-natural counterparts, beings whose perceptions of the universe were whatever they made of it, not what the laws of nature dictated them to be. What followed were countless debates and theoretical discussions that endured through the second Culture Clash and culminated with the formation of the Social Conscience thirty years later. Since then there have been over a hundred near-clashes, all averted by the quick actions of telepaths and empaths working in concert. Only one of them involved a Valora. It nearly ended in disaster.
Lenex continues to stare at the Valora's swaying dance. He and his agents are all too aware of history, know what implications this encounter holds. Determined, he puts all his energies into maintaining the buffer and hopes for the best.
When the song stops the Valora bends in half and walks across the Main Room, limbs passing right through the bodies of those in its way. Lenex swallows hard as a jolt of panic streaks through the room. The empaths act quickly to soothe any fears. Lenex sighs.
Walking right up to the bar, the Valora's hand lifts up from the floor and opens up palm out facing a large painting on the wall. From the point of view of the closest agent, Lenex watches an eye stare out from the middle of the hand. Perusing the painting, the Valora waves at the picture with a nod, reaches through the painting, and pulls out an oblong cube.
It precariously balances in the Valora's hand as another leg drips from the ceiling overhead. Thicker than the first, the new leg bends at the knee and pulls out another arm from the floor, again thicker than the first. The new hand grabs the top of the cube and holds it out as the first hand clenches and reopens. Delicately pinched between its fingers is its eye, a small crater left behind in the center of its palm.
Lenex stares incredulously as the hand pushes the eye onto an empty cube face. The hands exchange the head. The opposite limb repeats the procedure.
A second wave of panic emanates from those closest to the Valora. Lenex purses his lips as he realizes that the agent has lost his focus. Empaths strain to push down the fear. Sweat beads on Lenex's head. The buffer is failing.
"Can't lose focus," he commands himself over and over. He vaguely hears the other telepaths repeat his chant. Encouraged, Lenex's confidence grows.
"Can't lose focus..."
The Valora sets its newly formed head on the counter as the pair of limbs stand beside one another.
"Can't lose focus..."
Bending at the midpoints, the two halves merge at the center and thicken. The uneven eyes blink in satisfaction.
"Can't lose focus..."
It isn't long before a headless abstract body fills out. Limbs out of proportion, it walks to the bar and picks up its head.
"Can't lose focus..."
Putting it on backwards, the Valora turns around, backs over the bar, and stares at the painting.
"Can't lose focus..."
It turns around once more. A misplaced mouth crookedly grins.
"Can't lose focus..."
Leaning up, it reaches into the painting, steps up on the counter, and begins to push itself through the canvas.
"CAN'T LOSE FOCUS...!"
One leg disappears. As the second leg passes through, a third eye opens on the sole of its foot. It takes a long look around the bar before it slips into the painting and vanishes.
Lenex collapses to the floor.
Max shakes the cobwebs from his head and glances around. One by one the patrons come to. Vague memories of an abstract daydream float in his consciousness, images he'd be hard-pressed to describe with any sense of accuracy. Others seem to share the same feeling as they discuss their strange visions. No two descriptions are alike. The communal confusion persists for several minutes before old conversations pick up where they left off. It doesn't take long for everything to return back to normal.
A short beep beneath the counter catches Max's attention. He leans down to see the Counter-Clash system display a summary report. With a rush he remembers his discussion with Lenex. Standing on a step stool, he scans the crowd for the agents.
"What are you looking for?" Trixie asks as she sets her drink tray on the bar. Max absently shakes his head as he stares at the exit. Just visible through the throng is Lenex's crown as it passes beneath the doorway and out of sight.
Max nods resignedly as he turn to Trixie. "Nothing. Just thinking, is all."
"The Social Conscience was here." The confidence of the statement throws Max for a loop. "The tables don't work on me," she explains matter-of-factly in answer to his bewildered gaze. "I felt one of them push into my head. I thought it best not to fight it."
The ensuing silence is awkward. Trixie breaks it. "I need an order of nutrient paste." She hands over a digi-pad. Thankful for the distraction, Max takes it and grabs a mug.
As he heads for the refrigerator he hears Trixie gasp in alarm. Max whips his head back around. Trixie's mouth is agape as she gazes up at the wall behind him.
"What is it?" he asks urgently as he glances over his shoulder in the direction of her stare. He does a double-take. There in the painting is the very image from his daydream. He and Trixie exchange looks.
"I'll get the ladder," he tells her comfortingly. Trixie absently nods as she points toward the restrooms. "Take your time," Max says. He watches her wind through the crowd and nervously scratches his chin as he heads for the storeroom.
Max hauls in a crate of liquor from the back just as Kazch-Ak sits down at the bar. "Good morning," he says to the D'rrish as he sets down his load.
"Greetings," Kazch-Ak replies. "Ready for a new day?"
"More than you can ever dream to know. Anything I can get you?"
"Not at the moment." He points a claw at the empty spot on the wall over Max's shoulder. "I noticed you pulling the painting down last night. Correct me if I am wrong, but was it not a gift from the Demaarcan ambassador?"
Max shrugs. "Yeah, but after last night I didn't think it would be appreciated quite the same."
"Picassos can sometimes be awkward pieces that way," Kazch-Ak agrees. That's when it suddenly hits him. His exoskeleton pales two shades of gray. "On second thought, perhaps I will have a drink."
Max smirks. "The usual?"
Kazch-Ak nods emphatically. "The usual."
Copyright © 1999 by Gary Glass
Twenty-six, Gary's goal is to write full-time. He currently has two screenplays under his belt and is working on his first novel.