Therefore I Am

I haven’t done a Flash Fiction Challenge in a really long time and wanted to get back in the game. We had to choose a random sentence* from a list and use it in a 1,000 word story.

         I tried to hide the revulsion in my eyes as I wiped the dribble of saliva from his chin. Stubble flecked his cheeks where the Carers had missed. I wondered if he was somewhere else in his mind—somewhere nice. Maybe he relived his greatest successes or humble beginnings. I hoped he was staring into the moment where everything ended, the start of my personal hell.

I.

It was supposed to change the world—the sharing of consciousness. A chip implanted behind your ear translated your thoughts into layers of complex code that could be relayed to others. They marketed it as MindMeld and the first ads read like a science-fiction dating app. But popularity grew and the first inklings of the capabilities rippled through the techsphere. MindMeld became the next “it” thing—opening the doors to other technologies powered by your brain. The iCorp conglomerate pounced and soon you could calibrate your mobile devices to MindMeld. The usual anti-tech groups protested—it was turning us into robots, stealing our thoughts, our souls, our individuality. The programmers ignored them, the marketing campaigns mocked them, and soon even they were silenced.

II.

Caleb convinced me to get ours done together. “It’s the future, Macy!”
I asked him if he was worried about not having any secrets—about the total lack of privacy. He took my hands the way he always did when I was nervous and rubbed his thumbs across my knuckles and said I don’t have any secrets from you. It seemed sweet—the tech at the clinic said it was romantic.

III.

With MindMeld, you could shake someone’s hand at a networking event and they could download your resume and work history. It would be stored in the individual’s ThoughtCloud and could be accessed later. There were more intimate uses for it, too—dating profiles or personal ads. The privacy settings were unmatched, they said. You had to have permission to MindMeld with someone through a series of specially tailored, unique thought commands. When the advertising potential was fully realized, there were certain “public” zones where advertisers had limited access. Times Square was one of the best examples—information from billboards downloaded directly to your cloud. They lauded it as the greatest technology invented; its uses were universal: medical, social, financial.

No one knew that our privacy settings were as sturdy as tissue paper in a hurricane. MindMeld underplayed the extent of the breaches—isolated incidents, insufficient caution on the part of the user. We believed it. We didn’t know how to live without the constant, instant exchange of information, thoughts, feelings. The first hackers took the basics—bank information, nude photos, government secrets. Then came the Miners. They took memories, experiences—your fifth birthday, the way a first kiss felt, the sound of your grandmother’s voice. At first they asked ransoms—how much was your memory worth to you? But, once the door was opened, there was no stopping it. They took weeks, months, and years. They took your power of speech, your sense of smell, the ability to see color, and MindMarket was born. Don’t like your past? Change it. Want to replace bad memories with good? Switch them. Memories themselves became currency.

IV.

Caleb and I updated passwords, paid for extra firewalls, but with the same attitude you put up a “Beware of Dog” sign when you only own a cat. We believed that as long as we took the recommended precautions, it wouldn’t happen to us. We enjoyed the ability to communicate just how much we loved each other without words. He loved me like the sunset we’d watched together in Mikonos. I loved him like the feeling of waking up on a Saturday morning with the sunlight streaming.

Have you ever dreamed that someone you loved had amnesia? That they looked at you with blank eyes and had no memory of the years you spent together? When you wake from your nightmare you shake them until their eyes open and, even blurred with sleep, you can see that they know you. Until it takes them a minute to remember you, then ten, then—nothing. This is what happened when the Miners wormed their way in.

V.

It took a month to reduce Caleb to the wide-eyed, slack mouthed shell of the man I loved. He had been “mined”—everything that made him Caleb was gone, lost forever. We were in agreement about what to do if it happened to either one of us. It was easier than I thought to let his body go. I’d already said goodbye to his mind.

VI.

The man in the chair deserved no such release. The Carers thought I was a doting relative or a good friend—the way I sat by him day after day. I needed to know he was still breathing. I needed to know he was still suffering. The tubes and wires that pumped nutrients into his body did their job well. He had standing orders to keep his body alive no matter the circumstances—waiting for his mind to be restored. He was the inventor of the original MindMeld, which he aptly called HiveMind. He was fully aware of its destructive potential from the very beginning. His fingers twitched on the chair and a nearly inaudible groan escaped his lips.

The upload was a simple one, started at the beginning of my visit when I activated the MindDrive in my purse. Caleb is gone; the memory we used to share is no longer coherent. But the new memories I gave to the man in the chair were clear. I’d searched for the most excruciating sensations for years. I had burned, drowned, been torn to pieces, and suffocated. I had felt every way there was to die and none of them hurt as badly as watching the life fade from Caleb’s eyes. As I left the room, I knew the upload was successful. From the sound of his screams, he was living out the hell I’d created just for him.

*”The memory we used to share is no longer coherent”

Street Rats Part I

Hi, hello, in case you’ve been worried, I’m still here–one semester of graduate school done and finally remembering my poor, neglected blog. If you’re still reading, thank you. If you’re new, thank you as well! It’s not Friday, and this challenge of Chuck Wendig’s was from months ago, but I liked both the challenge and the story that came from it. In this challenge, we picked 5 words from a list. My words will be at the end so you’re not on a scavenger hunt for them throughout the story. If you like this, check out more Flash Fiction Challenges I’ve done, especially Circus. As always, comments and suggestions are encouraged!

©Hannah Sears

©Hannah Sears

          “You know why we have so many gods?” The beggar’s sightless eyes gazed to the left of where Zion stood, his face pocked as by disease or acid. “There’s a god fit for everyone. The Emperor and his like have their Warrior and Virgin in their golden temples.”
          “Who listens to your prayers, old man?” Zion asked, squinting towards the market.
          “The Hermit’s the only one for the likes of us’ns.” The blind man tilted his head, shaking his tin cup hopefully.
          “There are no gods,” Zion said. “And if there were, they wouldn’t care for us.”

          He turned and trotted down the dusty alley, feeling the stones grow warm beneath his callused feet as he approached the sun-drenched square. The cacophony of sounds assaulted his ears, yells of merchants and hawkers speaking a variety of languages, squawking chickens and bleating sheep, and the chime of the bells sounding midday prayers from the temple on the hilltop. He slunk between merchants; one of hundreds of orphans skulking hopefully around food carts and begging on corners. He thought of what the beggar had said and curled his lip. He’d seen paintings of the Hermit and puppets dressed in his gray rags, often carrying a shuttered lantern. Old men in rags were not gods, he thought. He turned away as the fat man whose pocket he was picking halted in front of a stall. Gold coins disappeared from Zion’s skinny, bronzed fingers into various pockets in his loose tunic and the shirt beneath. He looked innocently up at the merchant and held out a cupped palm, murmuring for a copper or two for some bread and mimicked the coarse, broken beggar tongue spoken by thousands in the city.
          The man sneered down at him, pulling his robes away as though Zion was infectious, “Away, street scum.”
          Zion turned his face towards the merchant’s guard. He was as different from his elephantine master as two men could be. He was tall and thin—but Zion could see that his wiry arms were muscular beneath his shirt and leather vest. Two swords hilts showed above his shoulders and Zion poised himself to disappear, flexing his bare toes against the sandy stones that paved the square, as the guard looked him over.
          “What’s your name, boy?” he asked.
          Zion stared at him. The guard had spoken Zion’s language, one none of the cityfolk knew, and spoken by only a handful of refugees.
          “Zion,” he answered finally.
          A smile plucked at the corner of the tall man’s lips and he reached into the leather pouch at his belt, pulling out a flat copper disk. He grabbed Zion’s wrist and turned his palm to face the blazing sky. Zion was too surprised to struggle and the man released his arm after laying the disk in Zion’s hand. The fat merchant was staring, his fleshy mouth parted in confusion.
          “Come to the Inn of the Broken Staff tonight, after the evening prayers, and bring this with you,” he said, closing Zion’s fingers over the metal circle.
          “A friend of yours, Solas?” the merchant asked.
          Zion saw the look of hatred that flashed across the strange man’s face before he turned back to his master and gestured that they should move on. Zion ghosted through the square, not bothering to pick another pocket, feeling the copper disk growing warm in his fingers. When he reached the safety of a shadowed doorway down another alley, he opened his hand and looked at the piece of metal in his cupped palm. It was much larger than a coin, but it had a face carved on each side like some of the foreign coins he had seen. He tried to bend the thing, it was little thicker than his thumbnail, but stronger than it looked. The face carved in profile was not one he recognized. There were statues of the Grand Merchants and the Emperor everywhere but this face was different—harsher, somehow. The way a wolf looks beside a hound. Zion slipped it carefully into an inner pocket sewn into the breast of his tunic. The tall man would not expect him for hours, but Rael would not be pleased if he arrived later than dusk.

          He jogged through the warren of streets, skirting the refuse on the ground and narrowly avoided being splashed by the contents of a chamber pot as it was upended from a third floor window. No matter the shade of your skin or the amount of coin in your pocket, everyone shits the same, Rael always said. Zion doubted the Grand Merchants would appreciate the sentiment. There were more beggars the farther he went from the grand bazaar but fewer bothered him. They knew he was one of Rael’s boys. Everyone in the beggar world knew of Rael—though few would ever be unlucky enough to see him. Zion ran a hand over the pockets beneath his clothes. He had done well today at the market, but he could have done better. He reached the grate in the side of the old temple and glanced around. The only one to witness his actions was a scrawny dog that had trailed him hopefully for several streets. Zion knew better than to encourage the dog to linger by feeding him. When he first joined Rael, he had smuggled a kitten down to the catacombs and fed it milk-soaked bread and fish heads. He still remembered the kitten: black as oily smoke from the torches in the catacombs and glowing, yellow topaz eyes. When he cuddled it next to him at night it purred so hard both their bones seemed to rattle, When Rael found the kitten, he had snapped its neck and cast it onto the refuse pile, daring Zion to remove it, to show any emotion for the little thing. Zion slid the grate aside and ducked through it. In the darkness, time ceased to have meaning, but Rael would know if he was late.

          Somehow, Rael always knew.

Words: Hermit, Acid, Orphan, Hound, Topaz

Next >>>

Faded

Last Friday’s “Flash Fiction Challenge” from Chuck Wendig had us randomly choose two items and make sure we include them in our story. If you’re unfamiliar with these, Chuck Wendig puts a prompt up on his blog every Friday and you have a week to write (usually 1,000 words). I ended up with (1) a distant outpost and (2) an ancient tree. I haven’t written fantasy in a while because my professors will refuse to read it, I got out of the habit, and I realized my longer fantasy pieces some of my weakest characters. That said, I’m working on flexing my fantasy fingers again. 

         Khaleb pulled the dust-scarf back over his nose and mouth and recorked his water sack. The sloshing was louder than before, the sack now three quarters filled with air. His guide, Ano, waited patiently, only his dark eyes visible. Khaleb nodded and his silent guide pressed his horse forward, the black beast stepping delicately over the corroded road. There were cracks and fissures in the surface that he would have thought came from mere age and weathering–a natural assumption this deep in the Outlands. On the first day of their journey, Khaleb swore as his own horse staggered for the hundredth time on their first day. He damned the road and everyone who toiled on it, provoked by his guide’s reticence.
         “Age cannot touch the Draha,” Ano said tonelessly, invoking the ancient name for the road. “It was not the years that did this.”
         Khaleb had tried to get more information from Ano, but the man retreated back into unyielding silence and Khaleb was forced to bite his tongue as his horse tripped again. He had made the mistake of staring at the road as they travelled; convinced it was the heat that made the crevices in the rock shimmer and writhe. He had not realized how long he had been hypnotized by the gaps until Ano rapped him on the top of the head with the wooden handle of his riding crop.
         “Nearly there,” Ano said over his shoulder.
         Khaleb rubbed the knot on his head in remembrance and jerked his eyes back up from the road. He didn’t need another bruise from Ano and his overactive imagination. Almost there, he thought, and even his horse’s ears pricked up in interest. The Ghan-mar Outpost was a lost cause. He knew it and his superiors knew it. If it wasn’t for a minor misunderstanding between him and the General’s daughter, Khaleb never would have been in the Outlands seeking answers from the men at Ghan-mar. There had been no answer to messages for weeks. Thieves, rapists, and a murderer or two. Those were the Ghan-mar elite. The rest of the outpost was manned by deserters and debtors serving out their time in service to His Supreme Eminence in the most godsforsaken corner of this godforsaken country. Khaleb thought longingly of the tavern by the oasis, of soft flatbread dripping with honey, of salted olives, of chilled wine, and of the buxom serving girls. He had no desire to traipse across the desert finding out why the scum of the realm was acting, predictably, like scum. He should be back in Caireb with General Logan’s daughter on his arm. Or in his bed. Miss Audra Logan, the virtuous flower from the Homeland, transplanted in the desert by her distinguished father. He grinned to himself. Audra was neither virtuous, nor anything like the fragile Homeland flower her father proclaimed. Neither of these facts kept him from being packed off to the Outlands and Ghan-mar on this godsdamned mission.
         Ano let out a wordless cry and his horse squealed, prancing backwards and nearly knocking Khaleb out of the saddle.
         “What in the name of–” Khaleb broke off as he saw what had startled the guide and his horse.
         A gnarled tree was sprouting out of the center of the road–in a place where grass could not even grow, in the middle of a sunbaked desert. Khaleb stared in awe at the tree, its trunk was wider than he could wrap his arms around and the twisting branches stabbed towards the lidless burning eye above them. The wood was gray and looked brittle but there were great round fruits hanging from the branches. He squinted against the heat haze and realized as his stomach heaved, that there were eyes staring back at him from bloated skulls. Not eyes–empty sockets that gazed blackly at him, still weeping tears of dried blood. Ano was praying breathlessly and if Khaleb hadn’t been so desperate to conserve what little water was in his body, he would have vomited. He swallowed against the bile in his throat and tore his eyes away from the faces, digging his heels into his horse until the beast took a few reluctant steps forward. He could see the hunched sand-colored outpost in the distance, blurred by the heat. There were stakes driven into the ground beside the road every twenty paces. The headless corpses slouched on their poles, grotesque sentries.
         “Who did this?” Khaleb demanded turning towards Ano. He could see the whites of his companion’s eyes in his dark face. “What barbarism is this?”
         “We’ll never escape,” Ano mumbled. “We have come too far, too far now.”
         “Escape? Escape what?” Khaleb whirled around, scanning the horizon.          There was nothing but the desiccated corpses and the unnatural tree.
         “They should not have built it here. We told them, when they first came, ‘build no house of man in the Greylands.’ We told them, ‘it is forbidden.’”
         “The Greylands?” Khaleb knew the phrase from a cursory reading of badly translated folk stories, he had never heard anyone use it in reference to a real place.
         Ano nodded, unable to tear his eyes from the faces in the tree. “It is from the Greylands that they come. The Faded Ones.”
         “The who?” Khaleb felt a modicum of relief. If Ano was babbling about ghost stories and this was all some superstitious nonsense, then he could go back to his superiors, tell them that the crazies in Ghan-mar finally offed each other and spend the rest of the evening playing the perfect gentleman to that minx Audra.
         “The Faded Ones,” Ano’s voice was barely above a whisper. “They come from the cracks that run between realms. They do not like those that do not respect their ways. That travel the Draha. That think they can tame these lands.
         “Ano, those stories are folklore.”
         Ano looked at him blankly, eyes wide.
         Khaleb repeated, “They’re just stories.”
         Ano shook his head. “They are coming.”
         As Ano spoke, a high keening wail rose. It sounded at first like the cry of a hawk but Khaleb knew it was coming from the heads on the tree. Khaleb drove his heels into his horse’s flanks and wrenched the animal’s head around. He didn’t care if Ano followed, didn’t care that he did not know the way back through the desert, that the road could well be covered by sand. He did not know how the heads could be wailing if their bloated tongues made no movement, but he lay on his stallion’s neck and urged the animal on with his spurs and his crop and his voice. The dirge filled his ears and he yelled to drown it out. He could hear Ano screaming and the dull thud of his horse’s hooves as the guide followed. Something splashed against his face and he tasted salt and rust. Ano was not screaming any longer.
         Khaleb closed his eyes as a hot wind rose in front of him, driving sand into his exposed hands and eyes like shards of glass. His horse balked and he opened his eyes, there was nothing. He dug in his heels and the horse reared, sending him to the ground before he could scramble for a better grip. He saw its dark tail fan out as the frightened beast disappeared in a cloud of powdery dust. He couldn’t breathe. Sand coated his tongue and his side where Ano’s blood clung to his robes. He refused to look back, trying to stand; he fell onto his hands and knees, trembling legs refusing to hold his body. He felt dizzy, there was a sharp pain in his side and he could not catch his breath. He stared at his hands on the road, at the silver-black fissures. There was a sound like a wind chime or pieces of glass being shaken in a dustpan.
         He looked to the side and saw a column of sand twirling slowly beside the road. It sparkled in the overpowering sun and he could not help but stare at it as it revolved. It spun faster and faster until it coalesced into a shape. The hooded figure shook once with a little shiver like a cat and sand fell from it like water. Khaleb was rooted to the road. He tried to force himself to crawl but, when he looked at his hands again, he saw that they had disappeared past the wrist, held in the vice of one of the gleaming cracks. The figure knelt beside him and he looked into its face. The face reminded him of the statues on the pagan temples in Caireb, their carven features indistinct, blurred by wind and scoured by sand. It reached out a hand the color of sun-bleached bone and touched his cheek. Its fingers burned like live coals and he tried to pull away. The other hand lifted to his face. It gripped his skull between its hands and pulled.