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The Fragile

by Luke Jackson

part 1 of 2

The mother screamed, purple veins standing out in the pale hollows of her neck. A midwife squatted between her legs; her thick forearms were covered with viscous blood and fluid shining wetly under the bright fluorescent lights. Underneath the mother’s screams, there was a small mewling noise.

The midwife had served at hundreds of births and was used to microcephalia and the other increasingly common deformities. She groaned inwardly when she noted that the head was different: strangely large and absolutely, completely snow-white.

When the baby came out in a burst of fluid, its scrunched face appeared much too large for its small body, and its large eyes were an otherworldly green. The midwife took an instant disliking to the baby.

“The baby ain’ right,” the midwife said, squinting away from the baby’s too-intense gaze.

“What do you mean?” asked the exhausted mother, fear in her eyes.

“Look see.” The midwife passed the baby to the mother.

The mother stared into the huge, emerald eyes of the infant.

The infant stared back inscrutably, without crying.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my baby. Please leave at once,” the mother said, holding the infant close to her body.

“Yeah,” the midwife muttered under her breath. She should have expected such attitude from a billy. She scrubbed her arms in the cold, biting water of the steel basin, and left immediately.

* * *

One of the first lessons his mother gave him was to never, ever go outside.

“There are bad people outside,” his mother warned. “They will hurt you.” The mother let the boy watch their small black-and-white television in order to demonstrate her point. The boy saw crime, war, and tragedy. He also noted the crumpled-flesh burn marks along the inside of his mother’s arms when she forgot to wear long sleeves.

The boy knew that the outside world was bad, but he was lonely. Sometimes, when he peeked out their front window, he saw other small, pale people like himself. They were able to ride on wheeled things that went fast, and to hit things with sticks. But most importantly, they were able to play together.

“I want to play,” he cried to his mother. One time, in order to demonstrate her point, she let him.

He walked onto the overgrown green grass of their front yard. He was so excited to be outside for the first time, he was breathing heavily. The blinding yellow sun beat into the dirt of the driveway and seared his papery, blue-veined skin.

“Hi,” he said to the boys.

They stopped their games and stared at him. Strange new sensations emanated from their bodies. Through their eyes, he saw a pale and sickly figure with an overlarge head and disconcerting eyes. It took a moment to realize that he was that figure.

For the first time, he felt fear and disgust at the sight of himself. It was a strange sensation: his mother had always emanated a warm embrace rarely marked by disquiet. Here he felt only tension and uncertainty, a giant question of how to respond to himself. He rubbed his palms and felt a slimy wetness.

Finally, the biggest boy, barefoot and wearing denim rags, laughed. “Look at the freak!” screamed the biggest boy, pointing his short, thick finger at him.

The other children laughed too, and there was something new: the uncertainty had been broken, but in its place, a unified resolution to ridicule and do harm. He felt as if his mother’s warmth, which had comforted and shrouded him his whole life, had abruptly been torn from beneath him.

The boy’s body was crushed by waves of horrible new sensations. Their ridicule was a sticky green web that burned into his pale chest and smothered him. He did not understand why there should be such cruelty; it was not only blindingly painful, but wholly unnecessary. He had intended no harm. He squatted and gathered himself into a fetal position on the overgrown grass, crying gently to himself, trying to throw up barriers around his mind through endless recitation of multiplication tables. His skin instantly erupted in an allergic rash, but he hardly noticed. The other boys left after pelting him with a few rocks.

“I told you,” his mother said flatly when he returned to the house.

* * *

That night, the boy remained awake in bed, huddled under his threadbare sheet. Outside, he could hear the usual sounds of the billy camp — the yelping of mongrels, the singing of crickets. The occasional loud motor and booming country-music song passed by, flashing accelerated designs of blinding brightness and dark shapes into his almost-empty room.

The boy reached out, seeking. He sensed the warm lull of his mother sleeping in the next room, temporarily at peace. He was very used to her essence, and kept concentrating, trying to push outward. He only sensed the lull of sleep, and occasionally, pockets of agitation and incomprehensible mystery-dreams.

The boy knew better than to explore these too deeply. Even if initially attractive, the minds of others were wholly unpredictable. Warm, comforting dreams could instantaneously change into hideous nightmares, based on the sleeper’s idiosyncracies. The boy was careful to skirt them; from a distance, they seemed only complex hieroglyphs of private emotion.

All this was familiar. But on the fringes, he felt something different hovering above the sleeping bodies; in space there was a cold eye gazing down on humanity. He reached further, and found that this eye was actually many eyes spread above the warm, sleeping bodies in the empty night sky. He felt as if he was suspended in blackness, become one with the eyes, pressed up against the multiple corneas in a multifaceted lens perspective. He saw too much; he saw nothing. In there, he felt that these eyes possessed a coldness and a hatred for the warm sleeping bodies below: humanity.

The boy felt momentary fear, but then he realized that he wasn’t of those sleeping bodies. The other billy-boys had made that clear. He was different and apart, much like the eyes above. And he felt, somehow, that the eyes would leave him in peace when they had their revenge. Their revenge would be his revenge.

The boy prayed that the eyes would come to ground, soon. It seemed that the eyes heard him, because he felt one break off from the formation and swing in towards him. He crept towards the window, fearing what he would see: a disembodied eyeball, white and veiny, floating just outside his window? The boy yanked the chintzy curtain back, squinting his eyes against what he might see.

The boy saw only an everyday pigeon, cocking its grey head at him and staring at him sideways through one reptilian eye. Its small beak seemed to curve upward, mocking him.

The boy let the curtain fall back into place, numb.

* * *

One day, the doorbell rang. The boy had not heard the sound for years, and its pleasant tinkling sounded strangely ominous after so much time. The mother was dismayed, expecting trouble. However, the two figures at the door were stately and uniformed, easing her somewhat.

“Greetings. I am Sergeant Kanniah Verma,” said the first, a hugely fat man with ebony skin and a strangely lilting accent. The boy knew that any accent was preferable to his bland billy non-accent. Verma’s dull green uniform was set alight with impressive sparkling medals. “This is Private Fitch,” he said, indicating a pale young man with a pockmarked visage, his uniform nondescript. “May we come in?”

“Of course,” the mother replied, hesitantly affecting a lilt, flustered that a high-ranking officer was in her home. She pulled out the chairs and offered tea and cookies to the men.

“We are here for Timothy,” said Verma, rudely ignoring formalities, “and we would like to speak to him alone.”

“I don’t know,” said the mother haltingly, terrified of committing offense. “The boy is fragile.”

“We are well aware of that,” Verma replied, bending his fingers back and breathing heavily. “However, we are not asking. We are here on orders of the Unified Republicrat Party.” Private Fitch nodded his head in sullen agreement.

The mother acquiesced, wheeling Timothy out into the spare living room to face the two men; his legs had begun to atrophy from lack of use. He steeled himself against their fear and rage, but surprisingly, he only felt emptiness from the two men.

“Hi, Timmy,” said Verma with a large, synthetic smile, offering a black, heavily bejeweled hand. He was clearly of high caste among the Republicrats. “You should be excited. Your life is about to change... for much the better, I think.”

The mother brought out the steeping tea and retreated from the room, probably to listen at a nearby doorway. Fitch remained by the door, his eyes flitting about. Strangely, the boy could not read whether the soldier was edgy and nervous or if he was merely inspecting the home.

“Timmy,” Verma began, “your life at this point does not inspire envy.” He waved his plump hands about the almost empty room. “You are rather well-off financially for a billy, but not so socially. As it always is with emps. Caste-wise, you are Untouchable.” The words were harsh, but Tim couldn’t detect any underlying ill intent.

“I had an emp in boot camp, before they were detectable,” said Fitch. “Didn’t make it through the first week.”

“Of course, of course,” Verma nodded, giving Fitch an irritated sideways glance. “As it should be. The world is defined by will, but emps cannot exert their will; thus, they are always dominated by the emotions of others. Parapsychology 101. Even if highborn, they end up low-caste. Our caste system remains a meritocracy after all, much as it was in the land of my forebears,” he breathed heavily with a self-satisfied air. He was clearly Brahmin.

“I am a telepath myself, as is Private Fitch,” Verma continued, turning his attention back to Timmy. “We know the difficulties of being different. However, I have been able to capitalize on my mental powers. Which brings us to the reason why we’re here.

“Timmy, the Party needs you and your powers,” Verma said, struggling through his accent for a stentorian tone. “What I am offering you is a role to play in society-acceptance, of a sort.” He gazed into Timmy’s eyes, like a bloated, satiated reptile considering whether to bother pursuing new prey.

Tim’s first thought was of his mother. What would she do without him? He couldn’t imagine her living here, all alone. But Tim chafed to escape from this house, these spartan rooms and hallways he knew far too well; the only emotion he had felt for years had been dull despair, and he felt that if he was forced to remain here much longer, he would go mad, tearing the hair from his head and smashing his overlarge skull against the plaster walls. Sometimes, he could actually see the darkened bloodstain smudges on the aged flower-pattern wallpaper: his future.

“I can tell your answer is ‘Yes’,” Verma concluded after pausing a beat, his wide mouth curling into a cheshire-cat smile. “Come with me, child. A new world awaits.” Verma took the handles of the boy’s wheelchair and began leading him from the house. Timmy felt he would have liked to voice his own opinion, if only to use his vocal cords after so long.

“Mama?” Timmy croaked, his voice sounding alien even to himself.

“I will handle the mother,” Fitch said flatly, remaining by the door. It appeared that Fitch was forced to be the bearer of bad news.

As Verma escorted the boy to a shining black sedan in their driveway, Timmy noted one of the billy-boys in the next-door yard. The neighbor boy’s freckled, ferret-like face was blank, but Timmy could read the suppressed feeling, seething underneath like blood-red foam.

* * *

Tim followed Fitch down the corridors of the Quarantine, the thin metal wheels of his chair whirring over the institutional faded-green tile. Fitch stared blankly ahead, bearing the same static expression as always.

From books, Tim knew that telepaths were actively sought after, since they were becoming indispensable in learning the hard, concrete secrets of one’s competitors. Of course, there was much less interest in learning about the churning miasma of emotion that lay underneath.

Fitch rapped his nightstick on the metal door, the boom emphasizing the emptiness. Egal, a balding, bespectacled man whose hook nose and pursed lips made him look older than his years, opened the door and gestured them inside. Egal tried to make people call him ‘Dr. Shamash’, but nobody deigned to extend him this courtesy, probably because most saw him as an emp-tech geek rather than a genuine doctor. Fitch directed Tim’s chair to a large steel vat brimming with a clear liquid substance.

“It’s a brand new compound,” Egal said, his magnified eyes excited behind the reflected grey of the vat. “Of course, partially derived from lysergic acid diethylamide to increase paranormal perceptions through severe serotonin depletion, but this compound is much more active on the extrasensory areas of the human mind. If a non-emp like me were to take it, I would instantly become completely, violently insane.” He paused for a brief, barking laugh. “Hopefully, it will help with the work.”

Fitch nodded blankly, completely uninterested. He performed his usual chore: lifting Tim and reclining him into a recess in the vat, where he would be completely submerged in the psychoactive compounds.

From the moment his withered limbs touched the new compound, Tim felt that something was different. It was only supposed to react on his mind, but his limbs were tingling with a strange fire even before he was fully submerged. When Fitch put his head under the liquid, the world around him was torn away as if made of paper, and he felt alone in a huge vastness, like space.

“This is working great,” he heard Egal say in a distant whisper. “Now Timothy, we’re going to try to orient on the Flock.”

Tim couldn’t orient on anything, even his own self. He was reeling through a multicolor miasma, with strange sensations erupting before his mind could process them. He couldn’t orient on what was ahead of him, because strange figures and symbols frantically sought his attention from the corner of his eye. When he turned, they vanished, and other shapes beckoned elsewhere.

“Help...?” Tim stammered through clenched teeth.

Egal and Fitch watched as Tim’s prostrated body twitched and thrashed, feeble muscles awakened with new fire, spilling compound over the side of the vat.

“Easy, Tim,” Egal said, putting his cold hand on Tim’s arm. “Ignore distractions. You can’t process it all. Focus on what’s important: faith.”

Faith, Tim remembered. Before, he would only feel strange emanations in the distance from the Flock, a comforting, slightly banal tinkling mental music. Now, he saw the actual Flock compound coalesce beneath him, their faith become material. He saw the actual people beneath him, greeting each other, walking the streets, nestled up in their warm, simple homes. But more powerfully, he felt the faith which interconnected them: a warm, reddish-yellow network embracing the whole, and spreading outward. Tim was momentarily enrapt, reminded of what he felt from his mother, seeing her wan smile in the glow below.

“I’m getting a great read, Tim,” Egal’s voice continued, slightly louder now. “This is much, much better than what we usually get.”

Tim nodded to himself, reminded of what he was supposed to do. He began speaking, describing what he saw before him, attempting to translate this empathetic network into mere words while the machines towering around him decoded what they could from his mind.

“Absolutely fascinating,” Egal breathed after a few minutes, taking an almost unwholesome pleasure in the work. “We wouldn’t get anything like this from the telepaths: fragments of ancient mythologies, seeming non sequiturs in the modern age. But this... this is completely different.”

“I’m glad to help the Party,” Tim said without feeling. Sometimes Tim found it hard to utter these bland untruths so necessary for socialization, after being a creature of emotion for so long.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson

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