They met, as usual, on the anniversary of the Expulsion. Although there were fewer of them by the year, they didn’t dwell on the fact. Daily life had become so much a matter of survival it left little room for reminiscence or regret.
There was one exception to their pragmatism. They found that whenever they gathered in quiet expectation of a state they knew as the Musing, a great contentment came to them.
This state of being or of mind (the Musing made such distinctions seem paltry) brought two irreconcilable conditions. Each member of the group felt utterly unique, and each of them felt personality dissolved into a single awareness without past, or history, or boundaries.
In time, a few among them announced that a higher understanding of the Musing had been vouchsafed them. Such people, who called themselves Ultras, began to draw apart from the other Outcasts. They adopted disciplines clear for all to see, and when not disciplining themselves, they schooled themselves to seem as though they were. The very skilled among this group were able to look as though they were suffering the strictures of mortification just by thinking of those practices that, if followed, would have led to their deprivation or physical distress.
An even more select group soon began to isolate itself even from the enlightened Ultras. This innermost circle of the gifted imposed an even harsher discipline on itself and required a corresponding strictness in those attending to their teaching. As a first step in the process of honouring their God, all sign of celebration, including smiling, was forbidden. The penalties for disobedience to this rule were so onerous they were mentioned only in hushed tones by small groups gathered in corners, never committed to written law that might be examined, and disputed.
All groups, all peoples of the Great Expulsion, religious, those without belief, and those open to persuasion, turned often, in fascination and at times with awe, towards The Towers. Obelisks of light erupting from a vast surrounding plain where neither animal nor blade of grass was permitted, their uniqueness, their magnificence, was undeniable, their charm, compelling.
Though the Outcasts were apprehensive of The Towers, few could resist the strange longing they compelled. Nobody should hold themselves to blame for this, the Ultras taught. Lusting after the cold and distant reminders of their loss of paradise was no sin provided each Outcast understood the shining obelisks for the harbingers of hell they truly were.
But although The Towers had their secret worshippers, the memory of sacred places violated, of doors kicked down by men in armour, of dissidents taken at dead of night never to be seen again, fear of the welcome they would find spared them the physical humiliation of the long trek back to the city.
“All the same, I can’t help wondering what it’s like to live there,” Lani confessed. “Not that anyone would want to,” she added.
“Live there,” Rachel said, “with the prisoners, you mean. The lost souls. The living dead. The incarcerated.”
“I suppose so,” Lani said. “The living dead.”
“So, we’re agreed.”
“There’s no denying how easy life is there,” Daniel said. “It’s all found for them, isn’t it?”
“All provided, so nothing to strive for,” Rachel said. “Nothing to discover.”
“Of course,” Daniel said. “My point is, at least they’re made comfortable as they pleasure themselves towards oblivion. Whereas—” He didn’t have to finish the sentence.
“Do you think they realise they’re comfortable?” Stephen asked. “I’ve sometimes wondered about that.”
“How could they?” Rachel said. “They’ve never known discomfort. How could comfort have any meaning for them? They’ve nothing to compare it to.”
“They’d be feeling more of what we call ‘contentment’, I suppose,” Daniel said. “Like cows.”
“Yes,” Rachel said. “Exactly. Like cows, chewing cud in the corner of a field.”
“Stuffing yourself silly on the three hundredth floor of a strato-apartment is a step up from eating grass, you’ve got to admit,” Daniel said.
“Blissed out on fillets mignon,” Rachel said, “is all very well in the short term. As long as you don’t mind becoming fodder yourself in the process.”
“Fodder,” Lani repeated.
“Organ harvesting,” Daniel said. “Among other things. You must have heard.”
“All of them?” Lani said.
“Not all,” Daniel conceded. “The planners only take what they need. Supply and demand, you see. They’re super efficient.”
“We’re sure of this?” Lani said.
“Have you forgotten the Detritus who came through a while ago? Do you not recall what he was trying to tell us?” Detritus was what the Outcasts called the more recent waves of City dwellers who had been cast out or had fled to avoid liquidation.
“Who could forget him? He was lost, wasn’t he? Totally lost. When you tried talking to him there was no-one home. Weird.”
“Tell me,” Rachel said, “I’m truly curious. I don’t know how it is for each of you. Sometimes I wonder, even now, if I’m really in company that agrees with me, or actually alone. When do you feel most human? When you’re doing as you’re told or when you’re freely choosing what you want to do and just straight up doing it?”
“I know,” Lani said.
“Of course, of course,” Stephen said. “But we can’t help but wonder sometimes what it’s like to live there,” Stephen said. “It’s only natural to dream of what you might be missing. But the Detritus wasn’t even capable of that. Wondering was beyond him. You must remember that emptiness when you looked into his eyes, how frightening it was. Terrifying, really. We talked about it later, after he’d gone away, don’t you remember? How the only thing that seemed left to him in this world was the habit of obedience.”
“It emptied him,” Rachel said. “Reamed him out. We all saw that.”
“I know,” Lani said. “I know it did.”
“Remember it,” Rachel said.
“There is no choice in the end, is there?” Daniel said. “Not really.”
“Oh, there is,” Rachel said, “oh, yes, there is. There’s always a choice. To live in doubt and difficulty if needs must, if that’s where destiny takes you, as a human soul. Or to ease your way into eternity as a habit of obedience written into the software of a protoplasmic engine; an automaton.”
“Yes,” Daniel said. “I suppose so.”
“No doubt trimming the edges of freedom here and there can seem a reasonable exchange for a little peace and quiet when you strike the bargain,” Rachel said. “And admittedly it does have a sort of beauty about it, the rough and ready elegance that comes with simplifying something difficult. But make no mistake, it is a terrible beauty that sooner or later will turn to rend you. Do you know the most terrible thing about it?”
No-one spoke. They knew Rachel would answer her own question.
“In the moment people begin to trade their freedom for temporary reassurance, in that same moment, they begin to die as human beings, even though they continue physically. You think I’m exaggerating, but I am not. Please remind yourselves of my profession before I left that hell over there–” Rachel gestured towards the towers without turning to look at them “–pretending to be heaven.”
Rachel had been an eminent neuro-physiologist, a world authority in her field, before her expulsion from the new society as a potential enemy of the people. She was always eager that her listeners should not forget that.
“It is worse for them,” she added. “Even worse. They lose the ability to notice what is happening to them.”
No-one chose to disagree.
Instead, they looked back towards The Towers and waited for the Musing to take them up into its comforting embrace. And waited. Waited.
Life in the City
“I was caught up in a dream and saw what it was to live in such a place. I couldn’t tell which of the archipelago of Cities I had come to, but I knew that my purpose was to taste the life of those living in such places, if it is permissible to call their existence living.
“I was dreaming, then aware of myself waking into the dream, knowing it had become the only reality possible. The pavement of the street I stood on stretched as far as I could see in both directions. It was a busy street. But I have to tell you that nothing of what passes as normal for us was what is known as normal there, even down to something as everyday as the movement of traffic along a road.
“Each vehicle was held at the same precise distance from the one before it and the one behind, the pulse of the city regulated to the centimetre, implacable, continuous, hour by hour, day, and night.
For us, a busy street implies confusion moderated, implicit chaos restrained. But there–”
“There, disorder wasn’t merely hindered. It was not permitted. I wish I could help you feel the quiet horror those traffic lights aroused in me, clicking on and clicking off with their implacable exactness at every intersection, the dread pressing down upon me; the sheer, featureless perfection of the mighty Towers on either side shutting out the light as they reached for heaven. But you would have had to step with me into that moment to feel the revulsion returning to me now as I describe that pseudo life, that animated process of the lifeless. Extinction would have seemed a kindness to that less than nothing I’d become.
“The vision reached beyond the personal. I knew with a dreadful certainty that this monstrous exactitude might yet signify an end point of humankind. No less. I knew that each clack and bicker of those insidious lights across infinite intersections might become our destiny. That marching to the beat of some algorithmic idiot clicking its tongue eternally might mark the end game of our species.”
I asked: “What was the point of your seeing this?”
“You have to understand. The vision was indifferent to any point that might be taken from it. Utterly indifferent.”
“What then are we to do? What do you suggest?”
“We must reverse history,” he said. “We have to change what we’ve allowed ourselves to become, in our millions. Now. Immediately. No more excuses. The need is urgent. The requirement.”
“You disappoint me. Turn back the clock? Everyone and his dog would like to do that. No-one’s managed it, as far as I know.”
“Believe, don’t believe – that’s your business and no concern of mine. You’re wrong about dogs, by the way. Animals are blessed. Do you know why? They have no metaphysics. They never enquire after the condition of their soul.”
“Turn back time. Consider it done,” I said. “I’m on it.”
“Joking around won’t get you off the hook. We’ve had centuries of trying that.”
“You’re not. That doesn’t matter, either.”
“How did we get here? It wasn’t always this way.”
“Implicitly, it was, always, from the Cave, precisely, ‘this way’. “
“I don’t believe any of this. We’re surrounded by improvements. How can you not see them? Medical discoveries extend our lives, easier travel, progress in knowledge across the board. You’re dismissing all of that?”
“Longer lives, of course. But in what condition? Of body? Mind? I see many – many – fifty years of age, forty, with crumbling bones, walking with the aid of sticks or riding go carts in the streets to do their shopping–”
“Gophers. They’re called Gophers.”
“Gophers. I beg your pardon. We soothe ourselves away by artificial means from understanding our degeneration and call it cleverness. We accept as normal diseases our grandfathers rarely knew, or not at all. Mind? Let’s not go there. Let’s not consider mind.”
“You’re not going to tell me no-one was bonkers back in the day.”
“Of course not. Insanity has its fads and phases. But this is what we’re well on the way to, this is what I saw completed, in the world I went to. There, no-one I spoke to – no-one – had the faintest idea of what I meant by ‘freedom’”
“You mean they meant something different by it.”
“No. They could find no meaning to the word at all. When they heard it spoken and they reached down deep into everything they were and knew to locate some shadow of sense for it they found a void. Blankness. They had no comprehension of what the word had meant, no sense of what it means for us or might mean. That is what we’d come to.”
“I have this strange feeling, talking to you, that I’m talking to myself.”
“Ah. at last. Enlightenment. As close as we’re likely to come to it this time round together, in any case.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“You know better.”
“So, we’re one, are we, all one. Is that the message? Yes, I can agree to that. I get that. Metaphorically speaking.”
“I’ve nothing to say to that except I don’t believe you.”
“Can’t afford to.”
“Have it your way.”
“As each of us is bound to.”
“You say I know more than I’m willing to admit. What do I know?”
“You know that I’m the one who has come to give you certain details of that which, admit them to yourself or not, you’re already prepared to find persuasive. Of that, I am perfectly certain. That certainty achieved, and passed on to you, my work is done. Let us consider now the world we’re making, in every moment that remains to us, by our choices.”
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