Vita Obscura

A very short story I wrote in 2018

Get the fuck off me!

Cold water peppers my forehead, bleeds into my eyes and mouth. Every piece of me burns to defend but my electric hands are motionless.

It is the silence that is most unnerving. Silence when the sheet is yanked back; silence as soap splatters across my skin to be swept away with short, coarse strokes. And not a single word as invisible, latex-smooth hands touch my nakedness. With each rasp, I shrink.

The third bed-bath. Or the eighth. Time is unfathomable; an unreliable blur of sounds and smells, spliced together with a med-induced kaleidoscope of repetitive images. They prod, poke and turn me, bathe me and inspect me, and I’m itching to smash fuck out of the beeping machines, or crawling a loop on Escher’s staircase. It never stops. But they don’t know I exist: I am a corpse to them. They see no reason to tell me why I am here.

I’m stampeding in and out of myself. In and out of my memory. In and out of my mind. There are scenes I don’t know if I’ve captured or invented, events I’ve surely dreamed, panic and purple pain in my chest. Distant voices mention malfunction and I’m inside out, looking for space to line up the words of my thoughts, arrange the image library.

Was it a week ago? Longer?  I’d been having a frustrating morning trying to get work done. That alone was strange. Life comes neatly packaged: it’s government policy. A well-organised society, everything provided; individuals with everything to hand, want and anxiety divorced from life. It’s the seed of contentment and bears the fruits of efficiency. Oh happy days.

I’d needed to speak to Gavin, my counterpart in Tokyo, decide on a location for the sales meeting. I brought up his number on my virtual retina, his face smiling at me from image I’d collected when we last met, and dialled. And dialled again. Nothing. No connection. I tried his home number. Same result; none of the usual background static as cyberspace went into action. Making a mental note to contact the tech guys, I carried on  working. It seemed unlikely, but if there was a problem with the network, or the TAICS, I needed to know.

I hadn’t been able to concentrate: no connection made no sense. I couldn’t remember ever hearing reports of problems with TAICS, the Thought-Activated Integral Communications System.  There had been early teething troubles of course, but those were rooted out what, maybe sixty years ago? TAICS is one of the secrets of the booming economy, enhancing productivity and shrinking the global community. It is one of the reasons why the world, as the billboards tell us, is now a kinder and safer place.

My head ached. I ran my fingers through my hair and rearranged my desk, unable to settle. After several irritating attempts to delete a comma, finally realising it was dust on the monitor, I’d given it up and left the office. My boss was an advocate of the Ministry’s advice to take a daily stroll in Rec A, so I didn’t think he’d mind me bunking off. I needed the fresh air and open space provided in that one spot in the city.

I hadn’t been to the park for a while, and I didn’t seem to quite recognise it. A feeling, a vague impression. Everything looked the same, it was as neat and inviting as I’d remembered, but there was a sense of dislocation, as though either it, or I, didn’t belong. Was it the air? A problem with the purification system? Coarse as sandpaper moving across my skin, the air was cold. It was early July, but my eyes smarted with the piercing of a first frost. It was just plain wrong.

Growing concerned, and imagining that I couldn’t breathe, I made my way to the edge of the path and grabbed the fence. A branch tugged my sleeve. Turning, I caught sight of the roses: bright yellows and oranges, deep reds and palest pinks, neat little bushes arranged in orderly rows behind the fence. Moving nearer, I bent to examine a flower, inhaling its rich, calming scent.

I couldn’t look away. The rose seemed brighter, louder, than the others, the deep yellow of velvet petals glowing against sharp-edged, dark green leaves. It shimmered and shouted to me, and seemed to slip in and out of focus before resolving itself into an image of such startling clarity that the rest of the world gladly shrank back. I had never seen anything so purely beautiful and immediately feared I’d never do so again. A solitary, mythical tear stole down my cheek.

I was on a bench, wondering if I was coming down with some mystery illness and staring at the ground. The usually pristine, rubberised surface was mapped with tiny fractures, each threading its way towards another, merging into large, deep cracks. The back of my neck bristled, my hands clenched into involuntary fists: we do not do decay.

A flash of metallic blue caught my eye.  Paper, the remains of a chocolate wrapper, carried on the breeze. Spiralling towards me, it came to rest amongst more litter already dissolving into a nauseating, grey-green stew at my feet.

I staggered towards a woman I recognised, sitting with her arm protectively around the shoulders of a toddler. She stared, eyes cold and hard, daring me to come closer. Tasting her antipathy I turned to her son, noticing for the first time the pale skin and hollow cheeks, the deep, dark circles around his eyes, and the bruises on his tiny fingers. He looked back, pleading. His mother’s grip tightened at the back of his neck, pinching and twisting, burning white flesh to red. Keeping his silence, the boy folded in upon himself. I attacked another tear and began to do the same.

Eyes darting from side to side, desperate for escape, I wrenched myself away. Left: grease congealing on fast-food wrappings, the delicate transparency of a dragonfly’s wings. Right: an old man, grey eyes in shrunken sockets, a stinking, stained coat; sunlight dancing on a spider’s threads, drops of dew still glistening; overflowing bags of rubbish, bent and broken toys protruding. A sordid miscellany of filth and acid-sharp beauty.

Each new assault had butchered me, set my skin creeping.  A lightning strike of pain shocked through me, its barbed hooks tearing and shredding my insides. My blood fizzed, the atoms racing and colliding, smashing into one another, until I’d been able to see them, until their dizzying energy had overwhelmed me. And then I’d crumpled, consumed in a kind of euphoric despair – vital, exhilarating, and damning.

“They’re here, John.”

The voice, deep and leathery, belts the wind out of me. It rips through my memory, slamming me back down on the bed. Insects gnaw on themselves in my gut. My first ridiculous thought is that John has seen me naked.

“The government guys? Don’t trust us eh, boss?”

“This is huge, John, you know that.”

“It’s got the Civil Harmony boys twitching that’s for sure.”

“It’s a couple of their ministers that are here, “ she’s moving now, a wake of summery scent behind her.  “Look, they’ll just witness the TAICS upload, sign the certificates and fuck off. Twenty minutes. Max.”

“Well, I’m just about set,” says John.

There’s movement beside me. The hair is swept from my neck and there’s a familiar snap as something is slotted into the port behind my ear. I smell the woman again, closer.

“You have double-checked the guidelines for the emotion filter, John?” she says, her voice sharp.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s okay. Real-time and image capture are both set to seventy-five

percent res. No danger of a repeat, thank fuck.”

The hooks are back and I know I’m slipping. A heavy certainty descends upon me. It hollows me out, leaving me with the tragedy of loss. I’m itching to punch my way upright, get out of here, make my way back to the green leaves and litter.

My eyelids are forced open. Shadowy figures fade into the periphery, haloing a sphere of solid white light. I want to shout. I want to scream and say, “Look! I’m here! I’m in here!”

There’s the touch of a cold finger against my cheek, almost tender, and warm breath on my skin. My purple heart shrivels to black, blue and yellow when he speaks.

”Ok then Chiara, a quick reboot and you’ll be good as new: you won’t feel a thing.”


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