Inside the Artists’ Colony
by Luke Jackson
part 1 of 2
The trouble all started when she convinced me to drive out to the artists’ colony in El Cajon.
In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have gone. For a young man, I had a respectable rank at the Madrigal compound in Encinitas. My marketing work, trying to tailor the Madrigal’s message for the unconverted, was intellectually and financially rewarding. My space was absolutely beautiful, situated in a spiral tower directly above the coast, surrounded by sun, sand, and the crashing waves. I could hear the cries of the seagulls as they were borne along by warm ocean breezes, and thought that they too had benefited from the Madrigal.
I know why I went, though: Kimber. I never thought I would have a chance with a girl like her. When I had been paired with her, I had felt a strange sort of ecstasy, as if my body was filled with light and the world was filled with possibility. I was of much lower rank then and assumed that some major matchmaking error had occurred, but I hoped to enjoy the error for as long as possible.
She was stunning, with her luminescent, slightly unfocused brown eyes, full lips, and long hair parted in the middle. But I loved her for the person she was. She told me that her mother had been an artist, and I imagined that she carried some of that in her — a different vision of the world, a manner that was slightly off the beat of society, which I usually found charming. Matched pairs weren’t supposed to fall in love.
“My mother’s funeral is next week,” she had said. At first I didn’t realize that this would require a visit to the colony. When I nodded absent-mindedly, she added, “I have already put in requests for passports.” I stopped fiddling with the power noose on my uniform.
“You realize I can’t go to El Cajon, or any other colony for that manner,” I said flatly. I didn’t think she would want to jeopardize my position with the Madrigal. Distantly, I was surprised that the artists would even honor their dead.
“Jack, this is important to me,” she said softly, lightly touching my elbow. “I wasn’t able to see her for so long while she was alive. Please?” Her eyes were wide and soft in the mirror.
* * *
I waited outside Bruce’s space while he reprimanded an anonymous low-ranker. On Bruce’s wall, he had an artist’s rendering of him standing in sparkling regalia, a beaming smile on his face. In the picture, he was surrounded by Madrigal, the expressions on their long suckerfish faces unreadable.
When Bruce was done and the unfortunate red-faced underling had scurried out, Bruce grasped my hand in a viselike grip. He was a strong and stocky man, his hair in a close-cropped military cut. Bruce was above me, but not enough so that he could dispense with these formalities. Rumor had it that he frequently acted as intermediary with the Madrigal.
“How are you, Jack?” he said, pumping my fist. “Doing well?”
“Fine, fine,” I replied.
“How is Kimber? Any little Jacks on the way?” he asked.
“No, not yet,” I replied. I had learned long ago about these common social pressures, first to be mated, then to breed.
“What brings you here?” he asks, returning to the pile of paperwork on his desk. The globe still held several pockets of human resistance, which needed to be actively courted or, failing that, destroyed.
“Kimber wants to make a trip out to El Cajon,” I said. Bruce frowned and squinted at me in response. “I know it’s unusual for one of us to go to the colonies...”
“Unusual, hell,” said Bruce. “It’s not permitted. You know that. Why would you want to talk to a bunch of artists, anyway, Jack? Seems like you have a good head on your shoulders. And those artists...” he chuckled, looping his finger around his ears.
“I know, I know,” I said somewhat sheepishly. A flare of embarrassment, and anger at Kimber welled up in me; I hated being forced to ask for something improper, especially something I didn’t especially want. “It’s very important to Kimber,” was all I could say. It would be unwise to say that Kimber had artistry in her lineage.
“Sorry Jack, no can do,” he replied, smiling but with a different expression in his eyes. “There’s a reason why they’re kept in separate colonies. If it’s art you want, put in a request like I did,” gesturing at the piece on his wall. “But the Madrigal know there’s absolutely no reason for a fine young man like you to go into the colonies. Have a good day, Jack,” he ended, picking up his phone.
“Thank you for your time, Bruce,” I said, making a hasty exit. Despite myself, I felt flushed and shaky, like I had just blown a strong wind against the flimsy structures supporting my job, my status, and my life.
* * *
I woke next morning to an emptiness beside me. I patted the bed, still indented with the warmth and smell of her body.
“Kim?” I called out. No response. I started to get worried. “Kim? Honey?”
In my bathrobe and slippers, I did a frantic search of the house. I even went out into the yards, looking up and down our streets, not caring about our restless and inquisitive neighbors. Her car was gone.
Then I remembered. When I had told her about the decision, she had seemed strangely quiescent, when I had thought she would be enraged. At the time, I had thought I was lucky to have escaped a fight.
At least I knew where she had gone. I threw on my uniform, jumped into my sedan, and gunned the engine. It made a thrumming noise as I hurtled forward into the blackness, elevating above the miniature toy-housing enclaves below. A few lights twinkled below, and, in the distance, fires.
* * *
The pale face of the young guard was difficult to make out. The sun was rising behind him, giving him a blinding halo and casting his features in darkness. I could only tell that he was tense and uncertain about my unusual request. When I was adamant, he retreated to his security booth.
Now, I could barely make out his figure several hundred yards away. A thick coaxial cable ran from the wall into the back of his head. I felt a sinking feeling as I realized he must be an initiate. For several minutes, I stared at this bizarre electronic coupling, tempted to make a mad dash for the barrier. I restrained myself with effort by telling myself that the Madrigal would have plenty of other defenses, ones that would probably fry me alive instantly.
When the initiate came back, he walked with shambling steps and his eyelids fluttered. From my experience at the compound, I knew it was best to keep my head lowered and my voice respectful while an initiate channeled the voice of the Madrigal.
“Jack Robertson, Encinitas Compound. A pleasure,” said the initiate in a strangely croaking voice.
“The pleasure is mine,” I murmured, appalled that the Madrigal were now becoming involved. I felt my future slipping between my fingers, my fate completely out of my hands.
“Jack,” said the initiate, “if I may call you Jack.” I nodded. “Might I remind you that your request to visit this colony was already refused by agent Bruce Jenkins. And yet you have driven out here at this early hour, on a work day, in order to do that which was expressly refused. May I ask why?” I glanced up to see the unnerving sight of the initiate’s eyes rolling back in his head.
I felt like my body was being crushed. Before, I would have never dared a confrontation with the Madrigal directly. I felt a brief resentment against Kimber for forcing me into this situation, but strangely, I felt more anger against the Madrigal themselves. I merely wanted to be with Kimber; how could they not understand that?
“I am presently mated to Kimber, authorized through appropriate channels,” I began, strangely forgetting her surname and identification number in my anxiety. “Her mother was a resident of this colony and was recently deceased, and we wish to attend her funeral.” I knew this information was the end of something, but not sure what.
The initiate grunted in response, and then froze. I imagined that the Madrigal, in some distant location, was considering. Were its long, thin fingers running along its elongated, permanently open mouth? Were its wide, flat eyes blinking? I realized how little I truly knew about them and their mannerisms.
“Your information appears to be inaccurate. Kimber’s records indicate that she was raised in the traditional manner, as a believer in the New Haven compound. She performed satisfactorily in her academics, was assigned to you pursuant to standard testing methodologies. There is no record of the things you speak of.”
“And if your records are wrong?” I asked, a little too boldly for my circumstances.
“Our records are never wrong. Your species does not possess the technology to tamper with our records,” the Madrigal said brusquely. I noticed a trickle of drool on the initiate’s chin.
“However, we realize that your species values what you call ‘choice’.” The initiate made a sound that could have been a snicker or a sigh. “You have proven yourself to be more fickle and unreliable than we predicted, Jack. If you return to the Encinitas compound, we would be forced to demote you to a menial position. We are more comfortable with only true believers working on our media image, and you have proven yourself to be cynical. You have lost considerable value to us.
“As an alternative, you may enter the compound now, which it seems is your true desire.” I felt a brief elation in my chest at the thought of seeing Kimber again. “However, if you do so, you will become one of the colonists, and shall be prevented from ever leaving.” My chest deflated somewhat.
“I will enter,” I said.
* * *
The initiate was back to himself, looking almost sheepish after his out-of-body experience. It was said that they remembered nothing of what transpired, for security reasons. He avoided looking at me, but directed me through a massive steel barrier set in the wall around the colony.
“Have a nice life,” he snickered as the gate clanged shut behind me, an act of youthful insolence probably meant to reclaim his personality.
I had stepped into another world, or another time. I had seen nothing like it before. It reminded me of the picture books the Madrigal distributed about the “Third World,” before the Madrigal had arrived and led our lost people to the four S’s: stability, safety, security and structure. I wonder which marketing genius had thought that slogan up.
The paved road had ended abruptly after the steel barrier, leaving a dirt trail lined with stalls. Vendors hawked their wares, the variety of which overwhelmed the senses: handmade clothes, tapestries, and shawls, brightly colored toys made of wood, various herbs to smoke and smoking implements, exotic ethnic cuisines, and even bootlegged chip technologies that were strictly forbidden outside. Under the yells of the vendors, a cacophony of musics thumped from every direction, resembling nothing so much as the crashing and clanging of an industrial plant overlaid with inhuman wailing.
Several starved-looking, turbaned vendors approached, brandishing brightly colored cloth. “Namaste,” one began, but I shied away and sped down the garbage-lined dirt road. I was careful to avoid the sharp horns of the yaks pulling carts across the road.
I rushed through the winding streets, the decrepit buildings on the roadside creating a valley of darkness. I noted only a few cars, which resembled heavily armed military vehicles more than sedans. Several hungry eyes stared at me from the alley darkness. I must have been an unusual figure, still wearing my compound uniform, encrusted with medals and insignia, completely unprotected amidst this artistry. With the unfamiliar sounds, sights, and smells, I felt myself becoming woozy, especially when I realized I would be spending the rest of my life here. Best not to think such thoughts, I told myself.
I realized that a tall, thin young man was shadowing me. His bald head gleamed in the streetlights and his pinched face had an unusual pattern of facial hair, somewhere between mutton chops and a goatee. Facial hair was outlawed outside as primitivism.
“What you want, moojah, tryptich, DXM...” he said in a rapid, underbreath staccato.
“Nothing, thanks,” I said.
“You must want something, hume. Everybody want something. Drink, drug, woman, man, new body, new personality, spiritual enlightenment, I can get it for you.” His small eyes glittered.
I could think of only one thing I wanted.
“Do you know where Kimber is?” I asked, feeling foolish as the question left my lips, but knowing of no other alternatives in this strange world. I wished I new her surname, but also wasn’t sure whether such things mattered, here.
“Could be, hume, could be. I know lots of Kims. But it’s going to cost you.”
We were standing in front of a café, but rather than the uniform caffeine dispensaries outside, this one had bizarrely angled architecture and was filled with unusual people, each one’s body a map of tattooed diagrams and brightly colored hair. Their appearance and their numbers made me nervous.
One of the patrons stepped forward, an older, somewhat portly man with wild graying hair, wearing nondescript shorts and a tie-dyed T-shirt.
“Come on, leave him alone,” he scolded the young man. “Look at his uniform, he’s probably with them.” He eyed the young man meaningfully.
“What, you a narc?” said the young man. His eyes squinted and he seemed to see me and my uniform for the first time. “Whatever man, just trying to help.” He backed up, still eyeing us, then turned around and strode down the street briskly.
Before I could figure out how to respond to this situation, the older man slapped me on the back-hard. “Noob?” he grinned.
“Yes, I’m new here,” I acknowledged. “What just happened there?”
“Nothing, just a bottom feeder, quick to scam but quicker to scare. The name’s Tom. By the way, if you’re staying for any length of time, you’re going to need a change of clothes.” He fingered the ornaments of my uniform. “Old feelings die hard.”
I tensed when he touched the uniform, thinking this was another scam. He laughed and his hand fell away.
“No, you don’t have to worry about that,” he said. “That’s probably the only thing that has absolutely no value in the colony. But maybe you could strip it down to basic cloth, sell that...” he mused.
“I’m not here for profit-in fact, I don’t even want to be here at all.”
“Haha, not unusual at all-we all don’t want to be here at first, but then strangely, we end up being here for fun and profit.” I blanched at his vulgar sentiment, but found myself being pulled along down the street by this “Tom” character.
“Yes, we all wound up being sent here for one reason or another. I was actually one of those originally sent, for destructive and inefficient ideological beliefs. I was a real artist, one outmoded by the Madrigal means of production, as they say.” Strangely, he said this with pride and a trickster’s grin. “Several of the others are here for other reasons-many of the ethnics are more recent, part of the whole gentrification program. I’m sure you know the importance of cultural consistency, especially among a lower species like us humes.” He shrugged.
“Yes, I certainly do.” I said, prickling at his sneering tone. “Humanity will never come together if it is caught in warring tribal factions. That’s the lesson that the Madrigal brought us, the most important thing they have to teach...” I began, becoming slightly flushed.
It felt strange to be defending them, now, but it could not be more obvious than that humanity had benefited from the Madrigal. Humanity had been lost in a nightmare of war, poverty and disease before; now all had been abolished. I had no idea why Tom was spouting such inane gibberish. “You may disagree with the Madrigal, but at least you have a choice: you can choose to abide by their rule, or you can choose the colony. Before, we humans were never so kind to one another.”
“Perhaps so,” Tom said with a noncommittal shrug. “Perhaps before, we were damned to be free.” He gave me a sideways look, his eyes glittering and hard.
“Well, I certainly chose to enter this colony,” I said, not feeling as certain as my words. “And the ethnics can always choose to forego their primitive traditions and adopt the mainstream efficiencies of the Madrigal. The Madrigal provide that which works best for all, not for one particular sub-group.” I felt myself warming to my topic, my stock-in-trade in the propaganda wars outside.
“You might have made a poor ‘choice’, coming into the colony now,” Tom interrupted, shaking his head sadly. “Originally, we were the pressure release for Madrigal society, a place to contain ‘inefficients’ without resort to genocide, which would have tarnished their public image-at that point, they were not as omnipotent and all-pervasive as they are now. Now, it seems they realize they have made a mistake. The pressure has been building as the population has grown in here, and they are stepping up their efforts at repression. You see, once you step foot in here, you are beyond ‘choice’.”
Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson