Poetry-Thing Thursday: One’s Breath

In the rise and fall of nations,
is a birth of flames and destruction;
the downplay of human character,
by greed-fueled plague-rats,
toward any dissent.
“Shout them down!”
And so back to bed they’re sent.

Meanwhile enthusiasm finds no love nor purchase,
in the minds of those most deserving,
for it is difficult to see or find happiness,
when one’s eyes are afflicted, infected, blended,
by the debilitating disease of poverty.

But it is not natural.
Nor has it come from nature.
It is, and was, spread by man,
the aforementioned wealthy ones.
And all in hopes,
of claiming the world,
for they and themselves alone.

Without the poor to trod upon,
nor to terrify and keep in line–
and the ever-shrinking middle-class ilk,
those wealthy rats will be forced to walk,
through their own layered filth.
We can only hope,
that very act,
will mutate them into better Beings.

But I would not advise holding one’s breath.

Short Story: Escape

Billy Hollis walked with a hunch, clearly up to something. He looked it, shouldering his way through the rain, trench-coat pulled tight in a style that, in the past, would’ve been enough to indicate suspicious circumstances. Nowadays, and largely due to Billy and his ilk, every rebellious youth sought to emulate the look. Few were willing to emulate the lifestyle further. Fewer still, as deeply as Billy was in.

He was an addict, he knew it. Addiction clawed at him daily. The hours he wasn’t trying to score, he was soaking in the score. The only way to ensure one got him through to the next was to sink as deep into it as he could go. There was no denying that. There wasn’t even a denial of the addiction itself. Contrary to popular belief, for some, admitting the problem was even less than a step. Billy had a problem. He admitted it. But he liked it.

Liked it so much in fact, he’d managed to fall into a rhythm of daily use. A usage society despised him for, but one he enjoyed so thoroughly he didn’t mind. Despite it, he managed to hold down a job four days a week.

And every second he could, he fled from stocking shelves to the bathroom stalls to use.

He had little else in the world, lived in share-housing with a few other addicts. Each was of his escapist persuasion. Each shared drugs in the unusual benevolence of addict-cohabitation.

The group of five or six– depending on the week, and the relapsing rhythm of one of the inhabitants– managed to scrape together just enough cash for rent, food, and drugs. There was never enough food, but the rent was always on time. Otherwise, there were fees and less money for escape.

Billy and his housemates awaited their supplies via dead-drops. It was the only way to buy in bulk these days, and they needed bulk.

Unfortunately, a major supplier had been shut down recently. The local addicts, and daresay junkies, were still scrambling to recover. It wasn’t going well.

In retrospect, that should’ve been Billy’s first sign of something wrong. It still was, technically, but he wasn’t thinking that way, too focused on procuring his next escape.

He slogged through the driving rain for the abandoned lot where he was to meet the dealer, unsure of what he was even escaping from anymore. All he knew was there was a means to do so, so he used it. Reality wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible; a couple guys he lived with tended to come down from their use like tweakers, becoming immaculate cleaning machines. As a result the share-house was always clean where most addicts’ places were dingy, abandoned sewage holes.

Billy’s past wasn’t too awful either. His parents had loved him. They’d even treated him better than most parents treated kids. He was an elder child, but had long abandoned the notion of being a role model. Two younger sisters meant always being at odds with them. Moreso, he was always being piled on for things “girls shouldn’t do.” Whatever the hell that meant.

No, some addicts could claim a poor home-life past or present as motivation to use, but not Billy. He wasn’t sure he had a reason to use outside enjoying it. He wasn’t sure, either, why he was planting each step into a driving, freezing rain. The rain had forgotten winter had turned to spring, its outer gray reflecting Billy’s inner gray with a haze of uncertainty.

Perhaps that was it, he thought, the gray. Perhaps using had something to do with the gray having blanketed the world. His mother had always said he had a sensitive soul– not the homosexual kind, he was quick to say, for fear of leading anyone on. Rather, the poetic kind.

If that was the case, it wasn’t a surprise someone like Billy turned to escapism. The world was a mess. Most people followed the same path. Especially nowadays, everyone had their thing. Billy’s just happened to be illegal. Why, he couldn’t say. He wasn’t hurting anyone. Maybe himself, but it was his life. He did his best to balance things; contributing as he could to society; never hurting anyone unless in self-defense– though thankfully, that had yet to come up.

Those were his rationalizations anyway. He wasn’t sure it was entirely healthy, but he wasn’t going to lie about his feelings. That could never help. His addiction made him feel good. In the end wasn’t happiness, feeling good, the important thing? Everyone was allowed their hobbies, why not have his be two things in one? Addiction and hobby? Seemed more efficient to him.

None of that changed the fact that spring had forgotten it was here. Or that winter had forgotten it had left. Or that the rain seemed to embody both. It especially didn’t change what the fates had already sown for Billy, for his housemates. It wouldn’t be long before they were all just more statistics, detoxing in rehab clinics, or hoping for just one more moment of indulgence.

The guy Billy was meeting seemed out of place, more sketchy and suspicious than most dealers. His head kept whipping from side-to-side, like one of those inflatable waving creatures at car-dealers. He was that, in a way, but shouldn’t have been. That was Billy’s second clue; the second he only recognized in retrospect.

The dealer, whose name was never mentioned, dropped a back-pack from his shoulder. In a swift, almost sleight of hand like exchange, he gave it to Billy whom slid a thick, manila envelope over. The dealer was gone in an instant, but just as well, Billy was too focused on checking the bag. The weight was right, the contents were right. Clean deal.

He made for home, the slums. Everywhere was a slum nowadays. Physically. Ethically. One or the other. The ones for addicts were the physical kind– though they weren’t as bad as the junkies’ into even harder stuff.

Billy was in the front door, greeted by the others as if toting dog-food home to starved hounds. With the utmost ceremony, he stepped over to the tattered couch and coffee table and upended the pack.

The cascade was like something from a dream: A galactic palette of superhero colors. Moorish grit. Soothing, Indie tones. Everything in-between and around.

The junkies dove, grasping, clutching, each for a hit. They’d get around to all of them eventually. Each would get their chance with each. The papers between might be a little more worn, but the effect would be the same. Everyone would get a first hit. Everyone would get a last hit. They’d all smell, sweet, taboo ink. Read the lines inked in black and gray. Feel the glossy pages.

Or so they thought.

Billy had his hand on something whose title he wasn’t sure of. The cover was an alarming red with a silhouette of detective noir. The door exploded in off its hinges. Life became a rush of images.

A rush that lasted months.

At light speed, he saw himself and his house-mates tackled by the ACTF– Anti-Comic Task Force. He saw his housemates shoved into the paddy wagon ahead of himself. He saw, felt, the booking, processing, delousing. He saw the public defender, their meeting, his arguing against charges on the grounds of “Graphic Novels, not Comics.” He saw himself pleading guilty for a reduced sentence. He saw he and his friends arrested, again, on television; watched the comics burned later that evening at the police department.

Sometime later, he stood before a judge, hearing the final charges of “Possession of Comic-Books, and Comic-Book Paraphernalia, Felony First class, partial time-served.” He heard the verdict of two-years probation, weekly room-checks, inpatient rehab. Detoxing had been done already, the court system slow as it was, but this formality was meant to help him straighten out his reasons for using.

Last of all, Billy saw himself standing before the judge, hearing the sentence over the nearby cries of his mother, her begging, pleading for him to “get clean.” Then, time resumed its natural pace. Days began to pass slowly, in utter boredom.

He entered his room at rehab, found the slightest protrusion of color from beneath his mattress.

He yanked at a corner of it, found that same, noir-like cover; where had it come from? When? How? He was ready to sprint to the nearest orderly, have it destroyed. He didn’t. Instead, he put himself in a corner, carefully opened the cover.

His eyes drooped. His brain lit. He smiled dully, stoned; whisked off on another escape.

Short Story: Preserving Society

I sat on my couch staring at a television that flickered with images like something from a nightmare. I kept hoping I’d wake up. The longer I waited to, the more obvious it became I wasn’t going to. That this was real. News reports were blaring, but the anchors’ tones were different. They mocked-mourning and sadness. Those emotions were nothing more than expertly crafted table-readings. It was sickening to behold, but I was too numb to notice.

The talking heads were doing what they did best. Talking. About another presidential assassination. They’d become more common in the last decades. People outright refused the position or title now. They feared the inevitable. No one blamed them. ‘Course, that didn’t keep the poor bastards’ heads from being splattered like dropped watermelons. Or their cars from being bombed. Or their homes. Or any of the other insanity the rebellion had taken to.

It was a difficult time. One of revolution. This was worse than any yet. Bloodier than the American revolution. Bloodier than the French Revolution. Any of the Arab Springs. Bloodier, simply by virtue of its battleground.

The U.S. was a hot-bed of dissent and protest. When those things inevitably failed the aggrieved, the riots started. It was difficult to say they ever failed. They never had a purpose. The eventual repercussions were no less undesirable:

Militias formed with growing frequency. States, counties, municipalities, embraced their rights, superseded the Federal Government where they could, because they could. That meant catering to the lowest common denominator– the loudest blatherers of so-called majorities regarding things more terrible than fair.

Eventually the National Guard got involved. Then, when they too, failed, the Army. It was the first time in history that our military patrolled to keep order. The truth was, there was never a snowball’s chance in hell it could. Everyone knew that. Even I did. Most of us “unaffiliated” just kept our heads down, noses to the grindstone. We started thinking or talking about leaving. It was just griping, at least in most cases.

Passports were denied en-masse soon after. It became obvious anyone wanting to leave wouldn’t have an easy time of it. The Feds wanted to keep everyone in-country, paying rising taxes for the forces oppressing them. Meanwhile the locals wanted sworn or blood oaths to defend their beliefs. Otherwise you were a spy. It was asinine, but then, it had been.

The first ripples of chaos came with the first presidential assassination. It wasn’t the only assassination at the time, surely wasn’t the last. The bloodbath hadn’t yet begun. Even now I doubt it’s at full-volume. Every time we think that, some bastards kick it up to a new eleven.

I was just a laborer. Just trying to feed my family. Occasionally I griped; about unnecessary security check-points, about guarded work-sites, about “wellness” stops on roads, and searches at every place of public gathering. But it was just that; griping.

The turning point was the talking heads’ first allusions to “refugee camps,” and “protective re-locations,” alongside “fears for our fighting men and women.” The euphemisms were thin. Smoke-screens. It was the beginning of a round up aimed at political dissidents, prisoners. People I knew began disappearing. Men I worked with– women too, gender didn’t matter– just up and gone. Sometimes, their lives and families went with. Sometimes, they didn’t. It wasn’t difficult to see the “protective re-locations” were involuntary.

Anyone not touting the Feds’ line were watched. It was like the Cold War Russia portrayed in the US media. Lots of dystopia. Lots of shadow games. Lots of state-sponsored murder. All the same, there was no denial of how bad things were. The disappearances were as much political maneuvers as insurance against further aggression. Fat lot of good it did in the end.

I didn’t know yet how it was happening. That is, how people were being picked from the crowds. I learned the hard way; a decade or so before before, we’d learned the government– our government– was spying on us. It was so wholly and thorough that the volume of information being collected could never be fully sifted. Not by humans. It was never meant to be. Instead, it was fed into a secret database. Every person was identified, profiled, and connected to the collected datasets. Phone transcripts. Emails. Forum posts. Illegal audio and video recordings. Every opinion, every thought, and every belief ever espoused within range of an electronic device was collected.

It’s not difficult to see where we were headed. Orwell was nearing a perpetual-motion disaster with all the spinning he was doing in his grave.

That night, of the fifth presidential assassination, I was staring at the TV, absolutely dead to the world. Dead inside. Dead, in that special way of one who’s endured more trauma than one has a right to– and yet is about to experience more.

If I’d known those would be my last moments as a free man, I might have done something more worthwhile. Anything more worthy of themselves. Instead, I stared at the TV. The talking heads drooled through the air between me and the box in stereophonic sound and 4k-ultra-high-definition.

The door to my living room exploded off its hinges. I barely blinked. I was a junkie nodding off. Filled brimming with drool and stoned by it. Nothing in the world could bother or affect me. The smoke hadn’t even cleared when the masked military team encircled me. They brandished rifles. Screamed unintelligibly. I knew enough: I was being “relocated.”

Turns out, “it was concluded I might present a security risk” given “adequate motivation.” When my wits finally returned, reality re-focused. I remembered my ages-old griping. It was the check-points and such. Everything I’d bemoaned was recorded, logged, later used as rationale for imprisonment.

The camp isn’t so bad, I guess. It’s no Ritz. No skid-row. But I can’t complain, really. We get three meals, a place to sleep. Freedom was nice, but it wasn’t for us. Not yet. We never cared for it. Maybe one day we’ll be willing to earn it again. Then again, who could fight for the insanity we left behind? Who’d want to?

Maybe the talking heads should do a segment on that; why’s society worth preserving in its current state? I’m not holding my breath or anything, but I’m betting if they did, they’d be hard pressed to find honest answers.

The Collective: Part 3


State of the Union

Lex headed back to the alley she’d come from. There was no doubt one of the few monitor-lackeys left had seen the murder. Even if they hadn’t, the bodies draining of blood on the sidewalk would be found soon enough. She kept calm, chose to leave, not flee. She feared neither discovery, confrontation, nor death, but couldn’t allow any yet. She’d seen her blades coated in the Collective’s blood, each of them deserving of the most brutal tortures. They would receive mercy instead; swift death, a kindness they did not deserve, but that Lex had no objections in granting.

Before the Sleep, Lex had never touched a sword nor even manifested anger. She’d never spoken out of turn, really. The Sleep’s long, lulling effects had a way of turning even the most gentle of creatures into raging monsters though. For her, it began with a simple question to her parents; why they’d seemingly abandoned her.

They hadn’t, they said– they were always home, always available. In truth, they were locked in their V-R worlds, chasing super-models or humping stallions, or completing mindless, trivial tasks that kept their headsets and neural nets locked in cyberspace. Being a young, precocious child whom wanted to experience the world, Lex felt she had no choice. She wished to see her family laugh, love, be together again, not stagnate in vegetation.

When she finally lashed out, she was oblivious to a new set of laws enacted regarding the technology and tampering with it. From a technical stand-point, they made sense. The VR tech and neural interfaces were far too complex to allow those untrained to alter them. Anyone whom wished to do so with malice could easily configure the tech to surge, fry a person’s brain, or even inject viruses into the cyber-worlds visited through them. Perhaps if Lex had known that she would have done things differently, but being a teenager and more stubborn by the day, there were no alternatives to her mind.

The fateful night determined her life’s course, was always heavy in her mind. It manifested as her feet compelled her through the zig-zag maze of Tokyo’s once-infested alleyways and streets. Fresh rain splattered the sidewalks. She tromped through puddles, rippled their reflected neon pinks, oranges, and countless, LED screens that shined from walls or vacant doorways.

As any neglected teenager, Lex had been angry. She’d lusted for boys, girls, friendship, commitment, purpose but found none. When she wished and begged for aid, she was shut out for the suckle of virtual teats in the vain hope of even a single, lowly drop of Mother’s milk. It kept the chaos outside at bay, but couldn’t keep Lex from her rage. Her thick make-up ran constantly, like an aging glam-rocker on-stage too long and greased with sweat and water. Still, her parents remained in their worlds, content despite their daughter’s pleas. She was forced into action, spiteful of the addiction that had claimed them. They’d withered to mindless, masses of flesh, husks of their former selves.

She stole a fire-axe from the building she lived in, a remnant of the fire-department era. With it, she did the only thing could; yanked the V-R head sets off her parents, smashed them against the floor, then planted the axe into the rear of each chair where their power sources were. The shower of sparks from the last swing arced electricity off the axe-head, snaked up the metal handle and into Lex. She landed, half-fired and unconscious.

The damage didn’t fully reveal itself until she awoke in a hospital room, one of few places people still gathered at the time. Things had changed since the invention of auto-diagnostic software. Home diagnosis of every possible medical affliction was no possible through the VR setups. Coupled with subscription pill services, even a cancer patient never had to see a doctor. Everyone merely allowed their V-R machines to send out data to external servers. Medications were automatically prescribed, shipped in, and installed by specialized drones that entered people’s homes at will.

Full-service, free medical care was the future, and it took– just like every other vise that kept the Sleepers’ bound to their chairs, atrophied them with mental stimulation. Whether they believed it or not, Lex was fighting for them. Their awakening would happen, come hell or high-water. Her own awakening in the hospital however, ensured she would never be one of the Sleepers.

The blaring white of a sterile room infected her eyes with the stink of bleach. Combined with a morphine drip in her arm, the fumes forced nauseated waves through her. She tried to sit up, found her wrists and ankles chained to either side of her bed. With a wail, a round, sympathetic woman rushed in, tended to her.

When Lex inquired about her parents, the woman went quiet, hands atop one another at her waist. She looked ready to speak when the door opened on a woman in a black skirt and blouse. Black, square glasses framed cold eyes that recessed in her face with bags and lines of premature age. She adjusted them as she entered, flanked by two GSS officers with rifles in hand. The woman gestured the nurse out, prompted her to rush away, eyes hidden as the two men guarded the door.

The businesswoman stopped at the foot of the bed, ensured the malicious point to her features was visible, then spoke with an English accent, “I am Calista Dahl, legal representative for Global Entertainment. We received word today that two of our machines were hacked. Indeed, when our security forces arrived, they discovered they had been– hacked to pieces, by a foolish little girl with an axe.” Lex opened her mouth as if to speak. The woman was quicker, “Your parents are dead. Your little stunt killed them.” Lex’s face fell away. She began to sob over Dahl, “You would have died yourself if not for luck. You should have. But now you will stand–”

The cries irritated Dahl. She took a few steps forward, planted a lone, hard smack across Lex’s face, then forced her chin forward to meet her eyes. Lex went quiet, teeth grit against the grip.

“You are hereby accused of crimes against Global Entertainment and its properties, and separately, for the manslaughter of your parents. How do you plead?”

She released Lex’s mouth enough for her speak; Her eyes narrowed, jaw clenched. She spit in Dahl’s face, “Go. To. Hell.

The beatings and imprisonment Lex was subjected to afterward would have hardened anyone. Instead of becoming a psychopath or a complacent slave– either malleable enough to be put down– she refined her strengths, convictions, planned for her eventual escape or release. The prison cell she occupied alone was one of few still used. Her appeal was made automatically by algorithms that took into account every possible variable of her crime, conviction, and behavior, concluded she would no longer present a problem.

They were wrong. Autonomous systems were like that; able to account for every variable, judge and determine whatever they wanted, but in the end, they knew nothing of the “human element.” Respiration, brain-wave patterns, heart-rate, everything could be monitored, but it didn’t change a human’s intuition. Had anyone seen one of their species wronged, ready to respond as Lex was, they’d have never let her go. Doing so was a grievous mistake for the Collective. Had they recognized the importance of her inability to sleep, they might have saved themselves.

Instead, she left prison, found others whom refused to sleep. In time her plans were laid, and her training complete. She became a weapon of steel and flesh. Her sole motives to survive became eliminating her parents’ real killers– those whom planted the machines in their brains. She was going to avenge every single person who had lost something, everything even, to the Sleep. The why was simple enough. The how was a river of blood just beginning to flow.

She stepped up a curb in the rain with a light slap of a boot, pulled open a door to an apartment building. She already knew where to go; top floor, last apartment on the left. The GSS would have only just responded to the first attack, would require time to connect the messages left to the need of protecting the Collective. Any reality otherwise was just more blood for the river.

She emerged on the top floor. Chrome doors gleamed along the hall’s low-light, reflected multicolored iridescence of neon and LEDs from beyond a nearby window. Building-tops outside were punctuated by the cool, deep blues of touch-screen panels along the hall’s doors.

Lex was prepared, had memorized the GSS master-codes her people had pulled from their private servers. When she reached the last door on the left, there was nothing to stop her. It slid open on an apartment that, like every other dwelling in Tokyo, resembled her former home. The only differences were in the few, luxury items afforded by the wealthy owner.

Her feet were quiet, dry by the time she entered. A light glowed beneath the bathroom door, said her target was readying herself for bed– or perhaps work, as was the way with the sociopaths and sycophants that now ran the world. Whichever her target was, she wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t matter with what was to come to them.

The door slid open on the face Lex remembered from so long ago. The eyes were warmer now though, more youthful, vibrant. The expression of shock on the woman’s face said she knew who Lex was, but there was a cower to her cries. Lex grabbed her by the tied robe, threw her further into the main-room of the apartment. The robe fell open to expose her night-time nudity, unfurled on either side of her arms and legs. She slid backward for the door on her hands. Lex’s boot was quick, held her down with a heavy foot.

Lex’s blades sang as they slid from their sheathes, “Where is Calista?”

“M-my sister?” The woman choked with an English accent.

“Your twin,” she affirmed with a level tone.

“I-I don’t know,” Dahl stammered. “I s-s-swear. I h-haven’t known since she was promoted to head of Global Entertainment.”

“You’re lying,” Lex said, a blade rising to press her throat.

The woman cried, “I’m not. I swear. God, just leave me alone!”

Lex pressed the blade inward, forced their eyes to meet, “Rachel Dahl; where is your sister?”

She swallowed hard, eyes and voice wet with sincerity, “I don’t know– b-but I might be able to find out.”

The blade at Rachel’s throat went lateral, forced a flinch that trickled blood down her neck. With it, Lex’s head tilted, “How?”

She swallowed hard again, “Com-computer. Email. I c-can schedule a m-meet.”

Lex snarled. The blade twisted to a whimper, “I thought you didn’t know where she was.”

Rachel squeaked a cry, “I don’t! I swear. I just know how to c-contact her.”

Lex’s dilemma was clear in her eyes for a moment. The blades lowered into their resting position and her boot rose from Rachel’s chest, “Get up.”

The woman’s feet slipped and slid as she rose, hugged her robe closed, “Wh-what are you going to do to me?”

“You’re going to get dressed and come with me,” she instructed. “And if for even a second I believe you’ve contacted GSS, you’ll be cut into so many pieces they’ll never find all of you. Is that understood?” Rachel gave a single, timid nod. The katanas whirled, re-sheathed. “Good. Now play nice, and get dressed.”

She followed Dahl, watched her dress in what once had been called street-clothes; jeans, T-shirt, long leather coat, and battered running shoes. Lex pulled Rachel’s hood up, instructed her to keep her face hidden, then stepped for the living-room’s center. After a few moments, she dropped a small, personal recorder on the coffee table and escorted Rachel out.

Missed part 2? Read it here!