ERASURE – a science fiction short story

erasure

ERASURE

Van peered into the binocular scope again, focusing on the garden scene framed in her visual display. Nothing had changed since the last time she looked.

The garden was tranquil, like the still life reproductions of vintage settings she had seen on the server archives. She liked browsing the archives. It helped her gain perspective on her prospective targets, those she was sent to erase. She smiled faintly at the euphemism. Killing was her job, and she was extremely good at it. The best in the system, in fact.

She blinked her eyes to release the strain of staring through the scope and reached up to brush back a tuft of hair that kept falling over her eyes. Irritating, that. She’d have to take care of it after this job. Maybe take a break. Maybe even give up after this, though that was difficult. In her line of work, retirement was a nonexistent luxury. Among the others like her, there were none who had successfully walked away from their careers, retreating into anonymity and a banal life.  Those who hired her and others like her didn’t like loose ends, and retired specialists were loose ends, messy and inconvenient. There was only one conclusion to messy and inconvenient loose ends. Erasure.

She bent her eyes to the scope again, focusing on the tiny manicured lawn and the meticulously detailed beds with their splashes of blooming color, interspersed with swathes of green and brown. From her vantage point far away and high on the summit of a bluestone bluff, she could see down into the garden and its stone walled perimeter, rising an imposing seven meters from the moss of the surrounding ground. She could see over the perimeter to the inner walls, intricately inlaid with designs of various fauna in flight, some of them alien to this world, all rendered in vivid color and relief so that the sense of looking out over a vista was overwhelming.

Against the far wall and artfully hidden in the decor, stood a small white door decorated with pink blossoms and made to look like part of the wall. The only thing drawing the eye to it was the smooth white path that began and ended at the door. The path led nowhere. It started out from the door and looped back to it again, obviously constructed to navigate the garden. From the secret entrance, it fanned out to one side and then followed the wall back around to the door, meeting itself in an infinite loop. Van had identified a problem with this path.

One segment of it ran directly beneath the front wall, disappearing from her view in spite of her high perch. It created a blind spot and Van did not like blind spots. They interfered with the logical nature of things, introducing instability into a carefully choreographed situation. She wished she could get rid of this one, but there was no way to achieve that unless she was hanging directly overhead the garden, a feasibility, but not a viable one. For one thing, she couldn’t hover indefinitely, and also, she would be visible, even if she transformed. Physical laws prevented her from changing into something infinitely small or enormously large, either. A large hovering avian would soon draw attention and become the target of the estate’s defense lasers.

She had been here three periods now, waiting patiently for the opportunity she knew would eventually present itself. As things went, three periods was not that long a time. She had waited longer in similar circumstances. Usually, she was able to enter the fugue state that enabled her to function automatically; synapses geared to the task at hand, mind focused only on the job and its nuances. This time, the fugue kept slipping away like a pollinating insect flitting from one pool of nectar to the next. She thought about the implications.

She had a limited lifespan, she and those like her. She had been created like that, a finite being with a relative terminal date, although the specifics of that date were hidden from her and the others. Not for her the vivo treatments that extended the lives of the elders and the rest of the community. She was a specialized creature, born for a specific purpose and when natural entropy degenerated the execution of that purpose, she was disposable.

Everything on this world degenerated, slowly but inexorably. The entropy hung over everything like a shadow, even when there was no light. The species that had created her had struggled for eons to keep the entropy at bay, and finally, they had succeeded, only to find that immortality had its drawbacks. If everyone lived forever, natural breeding would quickly overpopulate this world and everything would collapse into chaos, forcing the very result entropy had evolved to produce. Hence, the erasures and the specialists like her.

Not that those who were marked for erasure ever went quietly. Ages spent fighting entropy were never relinquished voluntarily or gracefully. Communities became walled enclaves containing walled estates from which world-weary inhabitants seldom stirred. Van doubted if many of the community dwellers had seen the land outside the walled enclosures in decades. Some had not ventured out in centuries. They were old and powerful and warily paranoid of the cyclical edits that marked them for erasure. She was the agent of those edicts and it was these doomed individuals she was created to erase.

The owner of the walled garden was one such. She did not know his name. Didn’t need to. Didn’t care about the details of his family connections. Just that his name had come up in the lottery that decided who died and who lived until the next cycle. Her own lifespan was much shorter. Her kind had no access to the vivo treatments and the ceaseless degradation of the entropy cycles ascribed the limit of her survival and functionality. Recently she had experienced random flashes of unfocus, a clear indicator that she was nearing the end of her terminal limit.

A movement in the garden caught her peripheral vision and she came back into focus with a start, realizing she had missed something significant. The door in the wall had opened while she lost fugue. Three people were out on the path and already a quarter of the way around the loop. Three people. Her research had indicated that there would only be the one. Her target.

He was there, one of the three, his golden chitinous skin gleaming in the light of the sun. But he was flanked by a female and a juvenile, both walking close and obviously part of his immediate family. Van peered down through the scope and increased the magnification so she could study the features of the companions, the intrusions into the perfect scheme she had planned.

The female was older; smooth features and limbs indicative of many cycles of vivo treatments, perhaps not as many as her partner, Van’s target, but nonetheless, an elder of the community. The juvenile was only half the height of the two adults, gangly and awkward in her movements.  Van could tell the juvenile was female. In the enhanced focus of the visual display, the characteristic feminine head stalks and curved back ears were unmistakable.

The trio was now halfway between the door and the point at which the path disappeared from view under the wall. Van could not risk the possibility that they might stop under the wall and ruin her perfectly planned opportunity. She needed to act now, or abort this sequence, and that itself was unthinkable. She had never ever aborted a sequence, though she knew of others who had. Those unfortunate others had themselves been erased shortly after.

No, she was going to go through with this. Compensate for the intrusions. It was what she had trained to do. Exclude everything but the target.

She settled back into her harness, twitching her headstalks to enhance the clarity of her retinal cortex and stimulate the onset of fugue. A familiar calm slipped over her, like a well-worn carapace. Her senses retreated, blocking out the scent and feel of her surroundings. Only the rectangular frame of her targeting display existed, limiting her vision to the corner of the garden below where the target moved towards their shared rendezvous with destiny. Van increased the magnification further.  Now only the trio down below and their immediate surroundings were outlined in her field of focus. Mentally she commanded up the tactical overlay, seeing the concentric rings and rangefinder data superimposed on her display. Without moving her head she made microscopic adjustments to the projectile weapon cradled into her shoulder joint. It would not be silent, but it was far deadlier than a laser.

Lasers were neat. They killed with minimal damage and laser damage could be repaired, even fatal damage. But the weapon she carried was designed to fragment its target, destroying any hope of regeneration, even with the advanced technologies available to the community. Projectile weapons had been banned for centuries. Only specialists like her had access to them, and their results sent a clear message of sanctioned erasure.

The target was approaching the limit of her execution window now. Van extended the second digit of her hand and rested the pad against the firing sensor, taking a final moment to gather herself in the fugue. She felt fluttery. Felt herself skipping over the top of the fugue, not quite in it, not engulfed by it as she should be. With a feeling approaching desperation she manipulated her headstalks, willing the fugue to take hold, trying to immerse her self into the calm.

The target reached critical location and Van increased the pressure with her front pad, but she couldn’t depress. She tried to concentrate, but the fugue was slipping away now as her pad trembled ineffectually on the firing sensor. In her visual display, she saw the trio; the target, the female and the juvenile, disappear slowly from view as the path hid them from her sight. Exhausted, she let go of the fleeing shreds of fugue, lifting her head from the scope.

She could wait until the trio reappeared on the other side of the path. Wait for another window of opportunity to open. She could try again.

But she didn’t. Somehow, she knew they would not reappear. Not in enough time for her to re-enter fugue again. She didn’t think she could summon the fugue again. The unthinkable had happened. She had aborted. Now the reckoning.

© Bryan Knower - September 2016
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Sierra Madre Blues

Sierra Madre BluesSIERRA MADRE BLUES

veryshortstoriesSebastian Crist first noticed her when he parked his bike and walked down to the spring by the roadside. If he had not stopped for a drink of fresh water and a toke he might never have seen her up on the hillside. She lay curled up against a jumble of rocks some distance up the slope from the spring, seemingly asleep.

Maybe she fell. Maybe she was injured. What was she doing up here?

The sheer absurdity of someone out here in the remote wilderness of the Sierra Madre Mountains made him think he was hallucinating. Maybe he was imagining what he saw. He closed eyes for a few seconds, but when he re-opened them, the girl was still there. He realized then that something was very wrong. Wrong for him and possibly wrong with him.

He had stopped near a small culvert on Route 166, the old Sierra Madre highway from Guadalupe to Taft. A ghost road, haunted by coyotes and rattlesnakes. A road less travelled. Sebastian knew the road well. He had ridden it before, exulting in the feeling of freedom as he pushed the motorcycle around the bends on the deserted highway. The deep thrum of the Indian’s big engine between his legs and the shattering roar of his passage through the numerous cuts and gullies was like a balm to his soul and these days, his soul felt in desperate need of soothing.

Leaving his bike by the side of the road, he scrambled up the slope to where she lay, a sense of foreboding growing in him as he approached her. It wasn’t until he was within a few feet of her that he realized she was dead.

Her throat had been cut from ear to ear, a red gaping slash that grinned at him from beneath her chin like an obscene mouth. His stomach heaving, Sebastian fell to his knees, bile spewing from his mouth, burning his throat and nostrils as he wretched. Images from the nightmares that haunted his dreams filled his mind, tightening his gut until he doubled over with the pain. He willed the dead girl to go away but in his mind, she beckoned to others, the fey spirits from his past that hounded him, taunting him, daring him to react, to do more than run away.

He always ran, literally and figuratively. In every instance he left the scene in a panic, reliving the macabre details in the nights that followed, unable to understand what he encountered. He never knew if the encounters were real or just twisted figments of his imagination, and he told nobody. His prior arrest record took care of that and he had no illusions about what might ensure from reporting such an event.

It all began two summers ago, on an evening just like this one in the Arizona desert. Days after a desert rave, high on Peyote extract, seeing the colors of the rainbow reflected in the hot sand; amorphous shapes swirling around him, imaginary or real, ghosts of the future, phantoms of the past, all of them female, all dead, speaking silently to him, commanding him.

Time seemed to stand still and voices spoke inside his head, telling him about unspeakable things, asking him if he was ready. He struggled in vain against their hideous insinuations, fighting desperately for control over his slipping mind, alternately pleading and ranting at them.

What do you want? Why me? I don’t understand. Tell me. What do you want?

It is your legacy, they said. Why do you resist?

It was not what he wanted to hear, so he ran, fleeing the desert, sweating out the peyote in terrified hallucinations night after night, trying to convince himself that it was all a result of a bad trip. The fault of the peyote buttons.

He felt exactly the same now, the urge to run paramount in his mind. He fought it, squeezing his eyes shut again, hoping this was all in his head. It didn’t help. In the desolate landscape around him, there was no sign of anyone, savior or pursuer, an absence of anything but the two of them, Sebastian and the girl, alone and surrounded by silence.

The quiet was unnatural, a stepping out of time, a time where lips moved, a time where limbs beckoned, gesturing; a time for drowned ears, like a face underwater, everything observed through a watery lens, eyes open without goggles, all clearly obscure.

In Cuidad Juarez, the dead girl’s eyes had looked like that, opaque, unseeing, accusing.

Why didn’t you do something? Where were you when they were killing me?

He had denied responsibility. Vehemently.

Not me. It wasn’t me. I’m trying to help but you’re already dead. Please, I’ll do what I can. Poor dead senorita. Don’t look at me like that. I’m so sorry, but it’s too late.

Avoid the accusing stare, the marks of her desecration and his shame. So young, so innocent, just like this girl huddled among the rocks up in the Sierra Madre Mountains. He was too late for her also, just as he had been too late for the girl in Cuidad, too late to help, too late to prevent the shame, the tearing, the mutilation. He wanted to scream.

Why me? It isn’t my fault.

There was no escaping it. Every one of them different but still the same. Mouths open, the ghostly image of a silent scream frozen on bloodless lips, a record of final agony endured, the rictus of desperation morphing from the phantoms in the desert to the silent accusations of the girl in Cuidad. Same expression of surprise, desolation and pain, with Sebastian standing immobile, rooted, frozen in time and space, all the desperation of all the lonely souls robbed of life and love pressing him on that rocky hillside with the sunlight fading like the hope in his heart.

Alone. That’s how you died. Alone. A solitary journey. A solitary experience.

And he was a solitary man. Always had been. Often wondered why. Adamantly refused to face the answer. Even though a dead girl lay before him, he was alone.

Sweat dripped from his hair onto his forehead. He did not notice. It ran into his eyes. He blinked, trying to release the moisture, but his eyes stung.

Sweat or tears? I don’t know. I don’t care. What now? Why do I see dead people?

Perhaps it was time to change the status quo. In retrospect, everything had the clarity of clear glass. In Cuidad, he had not moved the body of the girl. He did not move this one either. She was fresh, like a newly killed deer, the strange sweet smell of blood strong in the air; an unforgettable smell. He had done nothing then, self-preservation his dominant instinct. He made an effort now, for monsters were nearby, watching him as he got his blanket from his bike and covered her with it, watching him as he made his way back down the hill and kicked the bike back into life, watching him as he sat astride his softly muttering Indian, contemplating what to do next.

In the desert, he ran from the collective consciousness that beckoned him. He had run from the girl in Cuidad too, run from faceless and unseen retribution, and he meant to run now, from the nameless something that waited up the mountainside for him. In spite of his sputtering resolve the specters called to him, tempting him, beckoning, like so many times before. And in the forefront was the girl he had just left. The girl on the mountainside. The girl with the red smile. A smile that implored with the others.

Stay. Stay and be part of us. We are the same. Come be with us.

He rode away then; the accusation of that bloody grimace imprinted on his mind like a ghostly afterimage, and in the very edges of his vision, a ghostly company rode with him. And with them the dead girl in the Sierra Madre Mountains, now part of that endless expanding circle, reciting the litany of something he still refused to figure out.

Bryan Knower 2014

TRANSIENT: A Short Short Story

transient02TRANSIENT

Short Short StoryA hazy beam of sunlight throws a vertical swath of light on the wall, making a bright smear on the washed out pattern of the wallpaper. The paper must have been ivory colored once, but now it is a dirty shade of cream, fading to yellowish brown. The peeling edges lift off the wall like the curling dog-eared pages of a well worn book, in places torn to reveal the dull blue of an earlier print. Along the path the sunlight takes as it creeps up the wall, the paper has bleached, evidence of long tenure.

In a corner across from the window, an iron frame bed leans drunkenly against the wall, looking like it might collapse without additional support. The frame was once painted black, but all vestiges of color have peeled away, leaving only bare metal, interspersed with darker splotches of rust that contrast vividly with the incongruous emerald green of the coverlet. The bedspread seems relatively new and the small images of romping cats scattered across the surface seem like a sick joke in contrast to the severity of the room. At the foot of the bed stands a battered brown suitcase, its leather scuffed and scratched. The zippers are broken, the tabs missing and the case is now secured by two straps, curling and worn smooth from much use.

There’s a wooden clothes horse in the left corner, adjoining the window. On its rungs hang a faded pair of blue jeans along with two threadbare grayish t-shirts. The shirts may have been black once, but repeated washing seems to have leached all the color from them.

The other corner hosts a small metal table and a folding chair. Paraphernalia litters the table; a thin length of latex rubber lies like a flaccid snakeskin beside a tarnished silver spoon and a partially used spirit lamp. A disposable hypodermic syringe has rolled to a stop against the lamp, and resting near it is a crumpled scrap of foil paper, an orphan from the overflowing ashtray.

The ashtray, once the property of the Happy Family Peking Diner, is the cheap tin kind that everybody steals. The remnants of a dozen cigarette butts, the unfiltered kind, fill the bowl. The ash tray, once gilded, is now black with the detritus of innumerable mashed out smokes. The smell of stale tobacco fights for supremacy with the scent of Lysol air freshener, creating a strange pungent odor that is not altogether unpleasant.

The sunlight barely illuminates the room, even though it is still early afternoon. The window is grimy, and the inside surface is streaked as if someone has tried to scrub it clean with paper. The outside of the glass pane is spotted and patchy where raindrops briefly liquefied some of the grime before hardening it into a new pattern; layer upon layer of cloudy whorls that filter out most of the light. The view outside is bleak; dominated by the brown brick wall of another building, all the windows shuttered. The light in the room will vanish when the setting sun disappears behind the rooftop of that building.

A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling by a length of wire, as grimy as the window itself. The bulb is bare and unlit. In the wan light diffusing into the room, the wooden floor seems streaked, the result of many repairs that have matched neither the grain nor the type and shade of the wood. The boards look stained and dull, the surface lacquer long since gone and the wood darkened to a chocolate luster with age.

The sound of a jack hammer drifts up through the imperfect window seal, the rhythmic clatter mingling with the sound of shouted voices from out in the hallway. On the other side of the wall, a baby cries, providing a monotonous background to the rhythmic thud-thud of a boom box with the bass turned up loud. The walls are like acoustically permeable membranes, making privacy altogether impossible.

A cheap mirror hangs on the back of the closed door, reflecting the interior of the room in unflattering detail. Above the mirror, someone has screwed in a couple of cheap metal hooks. A white bathrobe, relatively new, occupies one of the hooks, a puffy cumulus smudge against the dull leaden backdrop of the door. It is one of the few things in the room, along with the suitcase and the jeans, that clearly belongs to someone.

Curiously, there are no electrical or mechanical contrivances of any kind in the room. This, added to the lack of furniture, makes the room appear bigger than it really is, an illusion accented by its Spartan emptiness. The entire aspect is one of impermanence, as if the entire room is transient, primed to transform in a moment at its owner’s whim. But there is no living thing here. There hasn’t been for days. Eventually, the landlord will come looking. Come when the pre-paid rent has run out. But by then the Lysol scent will be long gone, replaced by the growing odor of putrescence and the grotesquely swollen foot and ankle protruding from under the trailing edge of that emerald green coverlet.

Bryan Knower 2014