Friday, August 12, 2011

116/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "In Dark Trees" by Brian Eno


It was a month's journey. I think.

We were packed into one large room. Hundreds of us. It was mostly dark. My eyes adapted. I think they saw in ultraviolet or infrared. Who knows what those big eyes took in.

There were fights. We got a ration a day. It was a dry, gritty powder. We had unlimited water thank goodness. Most of us mixed the powder with water to make a gelatinous paste. It didn't go down easy. That's if you had it in your hands long enough. Those with greater caloric needs--the big beefy men, the former joggers and gymrats, and the ones with an extra layer of McBlubber, would push and shove and grab. After a week in that room, on that trip, it started. You had to fight for your share. The pain in your stomach was too much. And there were people who refused to eat. They just sat and stared into the gloom. They stopped speaking. They stopped drinking water. They stopped moving. Some of them looked at peace. I wish I had been that brave, but I was curious.

Our ankles were bound. Some sort of metal. It grew hot to the touch if you tried to tamper with it. Clever devils. Each of us was branded. Something was embedded under our skin, like a chip, but not a chip, in our necks. We'd get a searing headache if we moved to close to them when they came in to inspect us. They mostly left us alone. Maybe we smell bad to them. Maybe they just weren't that interested in us. They were just the deliverers.

They gave us no place to shit. So we did it by the door where they came in. The door would slide open, and it would run down out into the hall. Fuck them. They didn't react though. Not that I could see. Each time the door opened, the hall was sparkling clean, then there would be a stream of sewage running out. Practical, unemotional devils.

The water had a metallic taste. Maybe a touch of lavender. Like metal pipes and cleaner. I think they reprocessed all the water on the ship. Our sewage was refined and returned to us. Fuck us. The water was cold. The water trough lined one whole wall. The water came spurting out of a long hole where the wall met the ceiling. We were constantly standing in the trough taking showers. The entire month, except maybe the first day or two, naked bodies lined up elbow to elbow, young and old, male and female, standing in cold water. The noise of the water was comforting. Familiar. It was cleansing sure, but it made you forget where you were and what was happening, better than sleep could.

It was hard to sleep. There were always hungry babies crying, people fighting over clothes or food powder or scarce run-down batteries. There was a lot of coughing and hacking. We all caught a cold within the first week, but then it was gone.

When a body died, somehow they knew. We'd try to hide it, try to give rites, try to say goodbye, but the old ritual got meaningless. It was just another blank face, blank eyes. A withered human. I envied those bodies. We envied them.  They'd come in, three of them, it took that many, and drag the body away. They'd always drag it by the feet through the pile of shit by the door. We'd watch them as the door closed, awkwardly dragging a brown trail through their pristine hallway. I don't know what they did with the bodies. Maybe that's why the powder they fed us was so gritty.

Every so often the ship would creak. There would be subtle vibrations. It wasn't constant, just once in a while. I imagined we were curving around a star that was in the way of our path, but what do I know. Maybe the ship was just structurally unsound. Maybe we were lucky to make it all the way to their planet. Or maybe not.

We landed. Our chips burned, and they made us line up. We wanted to line up, not knowing why, fearing it but wanting it. I don't know how they got into our heads that way, but it hurt to resist. We were marched into the hall. We waited. Other rooms emptied. There was a lot of coughing and stamping of feet and shivering. I didn't realize how many of us they actually had.

The door at the end of the hall opened. Bright light. Intense--I yelled out. Such pain. My eyes adapted. We started moving. Shuffling. We walked down a ramp. As soon as we cleared the hull I looked up. Two suns. One was smaller and pinker. My chip burned. I looked down.

We were lined up. One by one our ankle restraints were removed. Each of us in turn had to step up to a pedestal. We were inspected by several of them. I finally realized what was happening. After we were inspected we were sorted. There were ramps leading down to different chutes with ramps going down. I saw ahead of me that the sickliest were directed to one particular chute. Those still obese went to a different one. Children another. Then there were five more for the fitter specimens. There was choked screaming and crying as families were separating. And yet they still looked on--unmoved by our emotions. Uncaring. They had their own motives. Fuck them.

It was my turn. My legs felt strange without the restraints. My ankles were raw and scabbed and weeping. I hoped it didn't qualify me for the sickly chute. They touched my legs and arms. They stroked my hair. They pressed their long cold fingers into my abdomen. I wonder if they have beating hearts, or if some sludgey fluid just circulates between their cells. Maybe they don't even have cells. I wonder what they think of our anatomy. Primitive? Messy? Inefficient? I wanted to spit but I couldn't. I imagined the saliva exiting my mouth in a tear-shaped blob, slowly tumbling down, and splattering across one of their bald bulbous heads. Would they understand it to be an insult, or would they just think expectorating is a normal human body function, like sweating?

They inserted their long fingers in my mouth, peeling back my lips to inspect my gums. They used a long ceramic tool with a blue light on the end to look at my teeth. I started to gag. The one with its hand in my mouth looked me in my eyes. I bit down. The pain in my head made me see purple spots. The tool broke one of my front teeth, but I took its fingers. They all jumped back. The one with fewer fingers held its hand tightly. I could see no pain in the action, just medical prudence. I spat out the mushy fingers. They tasted metallic. A little bit lavender. It made me sick to think back on all those showers. I was tasting them. I was drinking them.

They picked up the fingers. Their owner scurried off. I was sorted to the last chute. The one no one else had been sorted into. I walked down into a holding room. It was small, accommodating their height. There was no place to sit. The floor was scuffed. I stooped. No one else from my shipment joined me. After an hour, when my back was screaming, a door opened in the back of the room. I didn't realize a door had been there all that time. It blended in with the wall perfectly. The door opened and I turned around and saw another room. And in that room was a chair and a man. A human man. He wore a white uniform, like a bigger version of what they wore. His skin was mocha, his eyelids asian, his irises ice blue. Well-fed but not beefy. He was shaved hairless.

"Hello," he said.

"You speak," I said.

"Yes. Please sit down would you?"

"Why are we pretending this is a voluntary decision?" I said.

He stood there, pleasant but unamused.

"Do you know why you're alone here?" he said.

"I got hungry?" I said. I curled my upper lip for emphasis. The man looked confused.

"You show extra-violent tendencies."

"So I must be exterminated. I guess that's what the chair is for." I pointed lazily at it.

"No!" he exclaimed. He moved forward a step, then retreated. He started to speak then furrowed his brow and sighed.

"Harming an overlord doesn't warrant execution then?" I asked.

"I don't know what you think," said the man. "Please, sit down." I expected him to motion to the chair but he didn't. He lacked gestures. His arms were always slack at his sides. Like them.

"You're one of them," I said.

"No. Not exactly. I'm from this planet, I'm part of this civilization, but I am the same species as you."

"You weren't abducted?"

"No. I was born here. My biological parents were born here. Their DNA was constructed from many genetic samples that were harvested from Earth several thousand of your years ago and digitized. You could say my grandparent was a computer." The man chuckled. So they had jokes here. Lovely.

I moved slowly towards the chair. Curious. I kept an eye on the man. He followed me with his eyes.

"Yes, please sit," he said.

I gingerly touched the chair. It was smooth and white and cool to the touch. A black line ran down the length of it, in the center. There were two red circles the same thickness as the line, right where the back of the head would rest if you leaned back in it. I traced my finger around one of them.

"What does it do?"

"Ah, very observant of you," said the man. He smiled.

"What does it do?" I repeated.

"Sit down and find out."

I retracted my hand.

"What does it do? Eat my brain?"

"No!" said the man. "It upgrades it. Nothing is destroyed, just rearranged. It's so you won't be violent."

"I'm not really violent," I said.

"But you--"

"It was a crime of opportunity. I do not appreciate being abducted."

"I understand," said the man. "Nevertheless, you are still a good candidate for this job."

"What job?" I folded my hands against my chest.

"We need soldiers. Fighters. We think you would make an adequate pilot, but your brain needs to be maximized. You have to be able to think in more than four dimensions to be a pilot. You have to be quick. You have to think ahead and behind and before."

My mouth must have been open for a while. I remember blinking. The room felt like it got bigger.

"Why..." I wasn't sure where to start.

"It's been a long war," he said. "Although 'long' isn't quite the right descriptor."

"They're more advanced than us. They have space ships! Who are they fighting?!"

"We're fighting a civilization more advanced than us. Than them. Us. Please, sit. It will become clearer."

"They protect Earth?"

"Yes, we do. And many other planets. We protect life when it cannot protect itself."

"And yet they abduct. Steal. They don't value humans. We're a commodity."

"That's not true. They are different than us. They are very...what's the word...Spartan. That's it I think. But not violent like that society. Humans from Earth...surround themselves with comforts. Distractions. They see it--I too see it, as immature."

"You see it?"


I looked at him. I walked around the chair and stood directly in front of him. I breathed on his face, but he didn't budge.

"Are you...upgraded?"

"Yes," he said.

"Were you always that way?"

"Not always."

"How old are you?"

"About your age."

I stepped back and looked down at the chair.

"I can't go back?" I asked.

"No. That won't be possible," he said.

"I have no free will."

"Not at the moment, no. You have no choices. We need you to be a pilot. And if you refuse the chair, you will work in industry. Without an upgrade. Without the privilege of enlightenment."

"That's what you think this is? A privilege?"

"Yes. You will be able to fathom things you never dreamed existed. You will finally come to understand all the problems you've ever had. You will have perspective. You will have scope. You will be content and calm."

I watched him speak. I watched a muscle in his cheek flinch. A tell or a random neuron firing? Did he believe this crap or was he lying?

"And what do you think of the humans on Earth? What are they to you?"

"They are my wild brothers. The ancestor peoples."




"You could say that."



I paused and assessed his face.






"No. Not for what you are."

I tapped the headrest of the chair and looked at the hair on my knuckles.

"We were harvested."

"I wouldn't say that."


"No. Selected."



"On what criteria?"

"Your ability to endure the journey. Your intelligence. Your ability to reproduce."

"Really?" I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. "There were old people on the ship."


"They can't reproduce."

"They can. They have DNA in their cells. Useful DNA. We can work with that."

"A lot of people died."

"It happens."

"You said they protect life. Why would the have conditions so bad that people die?"

"It's a matter of efficiency. The ships used to carry inanimate cargo. They were adapted when the need arose. There wasn't much of a choice."

"The war's going badly then."

"We think we can change that."

"If I become a pilot, I guess I have a good chance of dying."

"The possibility exists. Yes."

"And I would pilot one of those old cargo ships."

"No. Not a ship at all."

It was my turn to furrow my brow.


"A pilot navigates a mind."

"A mind?"

"The mind of the universe. To alter events before they happen. To pull on the threads of history, and shake loose new opportunities."

I let out a sharp laugh and punched the chair, making it vibrate. Little bullets of light sparkled in the circles and down the line.

"It's true," said the man, confused again. He held the chair to steady it. I walked to the wall and slumped against it. I wanted to sleep. "If you sit in the chair it will be over in moments. The chair will explain better than I can. You will understand why you are needed."

A seditious thought germinated in the middle of my mind. I was excited. I wanted to nurture it, but--

"Please," he said, touching my shoulder. He pulled on my dirty sleeve. I shoved him away. My head throbbed dully.

"How far back can you go in this mind?"

"I don't know. It depends on the situation I guess. But I'm not a pilot."

"You want to stop the war before it begins," he said. I expected a nod but there wasn't one.

"No. Before that. Long before that. So that Earth will be left alone."

The man smiled.

"So that I couldn't exist?" he said.

"Well--" I said. "That's not what I meant, but I guess I did."

"It wouldn't work. I'm sure we've tried," he said.

"A paradox of some sort?"

"This is why you'd make a good pilot," said the man chuckling. "But no. It's just that the universe has a way of healing. Rerouting. We can't affect the past for very long. The changes are...reconverged."

"Can the future even be affected?"

"We think so."

"But you're not sure."


I walked over to the chair again. I pressed the palm of my hand over one of the circles. It was hard and the material around it gave way slightly.

"Why aren't you a pilot? If you're upgraded?"

"I'm not intelligent enough to do that kind of work."

"And I am?"

"We think so."

I dropped my hand from the chair and smoothed the front of my rumpled shirt.

"I choose not to upgrade. I choose not to be a pilot. I choose not to participate."

"I understand," said the man. There was no disappointment, no disapproval, no emotion. Just like them. He left the room, and I was left with the chair only momentarily. The red circles faded to white and disappeared. I didn't realize the chair was active.

Another door opened up in the back of that room. Brightness flooded in. It led outside to a dusty road. It was full of them and their pet humans. All pedestrians. I saw many ships docked, fading into the distance. Thousands of them. Was I free to go?

I walked and wandered. The humans would look at me and smile. Some of them waved. They were unnaturally friendly given the population density. The others, them, ignored me. I stopped and stood in the way of one of them. It stopped and stared at my chest. I picked it up and held its face at eye-level. It didn't move or speak or twitch. One of the humans touched my arm and suggested I put it down. I did. The human walked on.

I was thirsty. I found a vacant space behind a building, off the road. I sat down. The suns were still high. My face was hot. My head spun. I fell asleep.

I awoke on a low mattress in a dark room. I thought about light and a light turned on. I was dressed in a white uniform. My old clothes were laundered, folded, and placed at the foot of the mattress.

"Where am I?" I asked. I didn't expect an answer.

"This is your home now," he said. I turned and saw the man from the room with the chair, standing in the doorframe to the room.

"I didn't dream. I slept but I didn't dream."

"You will no longer dream."

I looked at him, analyzing. I could see the unique flecks of brown in his irises. I saw his eyes dilate slightly. I saw them dart around, reading my face. I could feel the warmth of his breath even across the feet that separated us. I could feel his heart beating. I could feel the electromagnetic waves gently emanating from his brain through his skull. I could see his pulse on his skin.

"I've been enhanced," I said.

"As soon as you entered that room," he said. "You didn't even have to touch the chair."

"It didn't happen right away."

"You needed to sleep first. But you know that."

"Yes," I said. And I did. The knowledge was hanging in front of me somewhere. All of it was. I just needed to...spin back or forward to find it. I thought hard. I pressed with my mind. I saw back, before I was awake. I saw the man leave...or rather come in to watch me, just as I woke. He knew when it would be. I knew when it would be. I rolled back further. The room was duller, grayer. I was carried in. Further back. The room became patchy, staticky, illegible. I jumped forward.

"How do you like it?" asked the man.

"I don't," I said. I lied.

"We could put you in manufacturing. Or the nursery. But I don't think you will be happy there."

"No," I said. "But I won't be a pilot either. I won't cooperate."

"You've taken very well to the upgrade. We were surprised actually. You'll have a hard time doing anything other than piloting. The urge is inborn in you. We...did not give you that."

"You just unlocked it."


"I'm staying here. You can try to drag me out, but I'm staying here."

"That's fine," said the man. "You've already done what we needed you to do."

"What?" I said quietly.

"How do you put it...roll back. Slow it down. Look at what happened between when you arrived here, and when you woke up."

I didn't need to. Suddenly I knew. I remembered. I was asleep for days. I couldn't move. But I saw, I felt, I navigated. The remote events blurred together, converged and diverged and wrapped around. I saw them coming in their ships, in bubbles warping space around them. Sliding between space. But it wasn't them, the abductors, but them, the enemy. The oppressors, the eaters of life. I had the overwhelming urge to do them harm, to twist their ships and press their bubbles inward. I tried, but I couldn't do that much. So I warped the space in front of them. I...frothed it up by...adding antimatter. It could last only a fraction of a picosecond before matter would come into existence to annihilate it, but the ships were close enough to catch some of it before then. It got caught up in the wakes of the bubbles, pulled away from their matter counterparts, suck inward. Colliding with the ships. Explosions. I felt satisfied.

"That was a new move," said the man. "That really helped us out. It changed the outcome of the war. We know how to use that again now."

He smiled and turned and left the room.

I laid back down. I tried to think of Earth, but I couldn't remember. So I thought of the delivery ship, and tried to remember the faces of all the people that died on the journey over. Their faces were blank. Their names were long gone. Their eyes were dead. I couldn't roll back to that point. I turned over and cried into the mattress.

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