Steven Fraccaro

The System
from Dark Angels: A Novel of the Future Past

                The system was the essence, the prime element and first cause. The purpose was control, but not control in the sense of attempting to completely regulate human activity. Instead, the intention was to perform a continuing experiment, within specific limits. Not limits as to what was permissible or what was tolerated, but limits as to what was possible. The system was constantly redefining these limits, in light of experience.
                To establish criteria for such control, information is necessary. The symmetry involved is precise. Information, a precondition of control, is infinitely refinable and requires continual redefinition. The comparison might be made to a set of Chinese boxes, each fitting inside the next in the series: thus, information is to control as control is to continued existence. To make things more complex, control and information each involve feedback circuits whereby they modify themselves as well as each other, and separately and in combination, modify existence.
                Surveillance is the precondition for information, and under the earlier term observation, has been the cornerstone of scientific research for centuries. The reporting of phenomena is the primary means we have of learning about the world. It is only when human beings constitute the material to be studied that such investigations have received the more or less negative epithet surveillance.
                Information collection was delegated to the corporation, not its official name but the term commonly employed to refer to this entity. Among the population, an elaborate mythology had developed around the creation, activities, and intentions of the organization. Much was based in fact, but fact that was incomplete and supplemented by fiction. Truth and fiction, when intermingled, are more powerful than any lie. The mythology had originally been fostered as a form of public relations; later, the stories accumulated their own momentum. Thus, most people maintained a hazy and contradictory impression of the corporation and its activities. This image or system of images might include the following propositions: the corporation is all-powerful and interested in the daily activities of each and every member of society; the corporation is evil; the corporation’s main purpose is to provide for the health and welfare of each and every member of society; the corporation is interested solely in information, not in social engineering; the corporation directs the punishment of criminals by the police; the corporation had its origins in a revolutionary movement that was suppressed some thirty years ago; the corporation is part of the state; the corporation isn’t part of the state but constitutes an independent agency responsible to no one; the corporation is, from time to time, torn apart by internal dissension and power struggles that frequently end in violence; the effectiveness and importance of the corporation are exaggerated.
                Evaluation of pure mythology is impossible, and at any rate not necessary. The most important fact regarding the corporation is that it does not exist, as a legal entity. Something that does not exist cannot be held responsible for its actions and cannot be accused of a crime. This is important, for obvious reasons.
                The corporation formed the conscience of the system. A phrase in common internal use was, “We are society’s immune system.” This metaphor provides a reasonably accurate description of how the corporation functioned.
                Robert Strange’s place in all this was paradoxical. An individual without any particular moral inhibitions who nevertheless lived an innocuous existence, he resented authority, yet served it and served it well. As has already been indicated, Robert Strange viewed life from the point of view of someone who was dead. Extreme skepticism regarding his own and other people’s motivations was the foundation of his personality. This was fortunate, for it enabled him to function and to earn a living.
                To track minutely shifting symbols, structures that might appear to transform very slowly over time and then suddenly emerge, completely and unrecognizably altered, this was Strange’s forte. Decoding society’s external manifestations, and tracing them to their source, was second nature to him. If the corporation had found a use for him as a collector and analyst of seemingly inchoate pieces of information, this was the price he paid for his continued existence. Strange’s extreme anxiety derived from certain internal contradictions. Instinct told him to hate the corporation, which he did, but even he understood this instinct was a product of his experience.
                Strange saw structures everywhere, terrifying structures, symmetries as hideous as those of the Venus Flytrap. This terror encompassed the system, the corporation, and his place within these entities. If he saw cracks and imperfections everywhere, if all human endeavor were self-serving and compromised, the cracks nevertheless formed a pattern that spread to encompass the entirety of life.
                Vision and the compulsion to analyze were his curse, following the cracks where they led was an essential directive of his personality. Strange viewed this in a negative sense, and saw himself as a predominantly destructive force whose sole consolation was that he had very little effect on the world around him.
                Surveillance is the perfect paradigm of the search for truth. As in more disinterested forms of investigation, there are few people who are capable of following the chain of cause and effect, the pattern of fact and repressed fact, to its source. The reason for this is simple: at the end of the trail is a mirror, and the mirror is cracked. Strange would sometimes say, “There is no such thing as truth.” The corollary, which he usually neglected to mention, is that there are many versions of the truth. Information per se was no longer relevant. The world was filled with information, a surfeit of information. Pattern was the important thing, and pattern can be discovered or it can be invented.
                Strange viewed his role as an employee of the corporation with disdain, but he was precisely the sort of individual the corporation employed, which is not to say there was anyone else exactly like him. Every subtype of neurotic and eccentric could be found among its ranks. There was a reason for this. The corporation thrived on society’s talented rejects, and protected them, thus ensuring their loyalty through default.
                The cracks led everywhere and nowhere. For Strange, at this moment, they led to the corridors of the center. This, the main complex of the corporation, consisted of a windowless monolith whose sheer red sandstone walls served to exclude as well as to dominate. It was claimed that this structure, originally designed to house the offices of a major communications company, was capable of withstanding a nuclear attack. In the forty or more years since it had been built, that capability had never been tested. Nor was it likely that it ever would be. The thickness of the walls did, however, engender a sense of isolation when inside. The floors of mazelike corridors were eerily silent. Nothing was there, precisely, and nothing wasn’t.
                The security mechanism flashed in his eyes. The loss of normal vision, followed by the encoded fortification-like pattern of steadily expanding lines, was momentary. The purpose of this sharp, black and white vision was to verify identity and to probe the subject’s mental state. An intruder would be rendered unconscious. Agents with proper access were scanned electronically to determine their degree of alertness (ie, whether they had slept sufficiently, whether they were under the influence of an intoxicant). A moment can be a very long time, in the void. Strange’s thoughts, upon emerging from the security screen, were probably induced by the flash itself. What is the meaning of free thought in a society whose members are bombarded by stimuli?
                The concept of passion had been wrung from him, many years ago.

*                *                *

                The conference that morning dragged on, as such conferences usually do. Strange’s attention wandered, focusing first on the emotional state of the people in the room, then on individual thoughts. The agent next to him, who displayed nothing more than a certain coldness, was inwardly terrified of being judged incompetent, terrified of not making a coherent and satisfactory report, terrified of disagreement. Nevertheless, he was considered one of the ablest and most valuable of analysts. A thin black man in his thirties, with eyes that trusted nothing and no one, he was driven by skepticism. His prized ability was to analyze input from field operatives like Strange and to evaluate this information with an extraordinarily high degree of certainty. This he did with a software program he had designed (and, needless to say, which only he could use to achieve consistent results), in combination with a fluid sense of somewhat malign intuition that was surprising in someone with such rigid emotional characteristics. The only material he couldn’t analyze was that which was self-referential: when faced with the task of evaluating his own inner life—and with making choices—he was subnormally competent. Fortunately, this activity was rarely necessary, as the corporation had more efficient ways of dealing with such matters.
                Strange did not dislike this man. Ensor was a superb analyst, but the intuitive leaps he was capable of were startling. He wasn’t guided by experience. Everything was theoretical, related to a paradigm or to a variation of a paradigm he had recently developed. Naturally, the paradigms constantly shifted. His motto, insofar as he might be said to possess one, was, “The past is no necessary guarantee of the future. On the contrary. . .” They were frequently seen to disagree, for Strange’s approach was based on specifics, on experience rather than on theory. Nevertheless, in the end their disputes would usually turn out to be more syntactic than substantive. Such debates, when both men were in the mood, could draw meetings out indefinitely, or at any rate well past lunchtime.
                “Mr. Strange, you have, I believe, been working on an unexplained death.”
                This sentence, uttered with a certain degree of condescension, came from the superior. This individual was not without interest, for he was one of those rare surviving relics of a pre-system family who maintained a position of true power, not simply privilege and wealth. Even rarer, this man with a blandly handsome face was obsessed with intelligence, analysis, and control and was haunted by the fear of being a passive subject, one of the manipulated and not one of the manipulators. He was a student of culture and history. To say he was Machiavellian would be redundant. In fact, he possessed two copies of The Prince: one bound in Moroccan leather and in Italian, which was prominently displayed on a bookshelf at home, along with Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Catullus, and Suetonius, all in the original; and one a heavily marked-up paperback translation with a crumbling binding, which he kept in the recesses of the antique desk in his office. He also had an electronic copy somewhere, which he never read.
                Previous to requesting that Strange make his report, the superior had listened to various recitations on the degenerating mental condition of a laser industrialist, the in-progress infiltration of a marginal political cult, and a series of perceptual and cognitive experiments on human subjects. By the time he came to the next case, his patience was wearing thin.
                Strange proceeded to relate the particulars of death: a man had been found outside a nightclub in the early morning hours, a theater director, someone of no particular interest to the corporation, dead or alive.
                “Strange, you’ve told us quite a bit about this individual, that he was a theater director, that he was successful, that he was a fool. Can you tell me why we should in any way be concerned with this matter?”
                “There’s a problem with the laboratory analysis.”
                “And what, precisely, would that be?”
                Strange turned to Slovsky. “You tell him.”
                Slovsky specialized in the analysis of living matter and human tissue remains. This he did with an intensity that was in no way hidden.
                “The spectroscopic tissue analysis reveals certain abnormalities at the cellular level. The sample itself, without any stain, yields a green phosphorescence, something not previously recorded in the relevant literature.”
                “Why is that significant for us?”
                “The significance is that we don’t know. The continued phosphorescence of recently living tissue is distinctly problematic.” The superior let out something between a sigh and a slow growl. Slovsky continued. “In other words, the observed phenomenon is not compatible with the current scientifically accepted theories about the nature of living matter.”
                “Which explains why we can’t turn the body over to the normal channels.” That was Strange.
                The superior glared at him, his left cheek tightening for a moment. “Clearly.”
                This man did not care for statements of the obvious, particularly when they might lead to complications. Silently, he checked the time, then scanned the faces of the men and women around the table.
                “You will continue with your investigation. No written reports until you have a full outline of all the possible explanations and have run a complete probability analysis.” He stood up, arms stretched out on the table, as if to support himself. “That is all.”

*                *                *

                The phrases that reverberated through Robert Strange’s consciousness constituted not so much a review of the recently concluded meeting as the detritus of a hundred similar meetings he had suffered through during the nine years he had worked for the corporation. Phrases, sometimes single words, were enough to evoke a web of interlocking memories, of past crises, successes, and disasters. As such, he took pleasure in their rising involuntarily to the foreground, a pleasure that was purely aesthetic and not related to any possible value the phrases might have possessed in the current context. This was a pleasure Ensor would have found incomprehensible—he would no doubt have classified it as a minor mental pathology.
                “Paranoia is a highly overrated mode of operation.”
                “Your argument is as logical as your assumptions are false.”
                “Do you always speak in synthetic clichés?”
                “The concept is everything, Mr. Strange.”
                “Delicacy is sometimes necessary, even in the most ruthless operation.”
                “The situation is complex.”
                “Social cohesion is essential.”
                “Finalize him.”

                Language played an essential role in the functioning of the system. Strange had originally been recruited by the corporation for his ability to manipulate language, which is to say, his variable approach to what is commonly called truth. The fact that he was able to see into other people’s minds was only recognized during his conditioning, or orientation, phase. This constituted one of the few experiences in his life that Strange shuddered to recall, for when he did, he reexperienced it in full, as was intended. Orientation was a process to which all potential recruits to the corporation were submitted. There were still a number of officers who believed it to be unnecessarily brutal, and possibly self-defeating, but they were clearly in the minority.
                The process of orientation was in fact torture, a form of torture that was entirely mental: sensory deprivation, drug treatment, the temporary implantation of electrodes, hypnosis, induced hallucination. The purpose was not to break an individual, nor to destroy his or her sense of volition or personal identity, but to see how much they could endure, to see how strong they were, to learn their innermost secrets, yes, and to understand how a specific individual could be manipulated. Strange was not an obvious candidate for this sort of test, as he was in no sense courageous, or even particularly strong. Yet he registered one of the highest scores ever recorded. The reason for this was that he understood exactly what his tormentors were doing, and intuitively knew that they were not going to employ physical torture, even when they threatened to do so. For, as with most people, the simplest and crudest physical incursion would have completely broken his will to resist. Thus, when they pushed the induced hallucinations to the fullest, administered the highest possible levels of stimulants, depressants, or psychosis-inducing agents, Strange maintained the certainty that it was still a test. Finally, he lost consciousness.
                It was this process of sensory deprivation and physical isolation that subtly changed Strange, turned up the volume on the inner voices he had always heard but had previously been able to dismiss as illusions, as mere fantasy. In this way it was discovered that he could read people’s thoughts, emotions, and in particular, their intentions. That he did this involuntarily made him that much more valuable a resource. Naturally, individuals the corporation recruited were not offered much of a choice: either they agreed to work for the organization, or they were eliminated. Strange’s specific pathology, his view that he was already dead, was not without a rational basis.
                The sense memory, a very specific physical revulsion, had spread through his cortex and dissipated. It was time to see Ensor.

*                *                *

                His counterpart possessed one of those highly strung intellects that thrive on paranoia. If Strange were to visit him unexpectedly, Ensor’s immediate reaction would be one of distrust. Strange would therefore seek to placate him by drawing him into a discussion of the intricacies of his craft. The other man’s distrust wouldn’t disappear, but it would be diverted to a specific end.
                Ensor did not look up when Strange entered the room, his attention fixed on a screen that displayed the record of a human subject’s neuronal firing patterns during one of the corporation’s terminal experiments, along with images of several individuals currently under investigation.
                “What do you want?”
                “I was in the vicinity and decided to visit.”
                “That is highly unlikely.”
                “Is that a conclusion drawn from previous experience?”
                At this, Ensor turned around in his chair, his mouth trembling in what on another person would have been a smile, but on Ensor was more of a facial tic.
                “Partially. As you can see, I am occupied with a specific problem, and my time is at a premium. Since neither of us is in the habit of paying social calls, I would suggest that you state what you want as succinctly as possible.”
                “First, I would like to know what you’re working on.”
                Ensor removed his glasses, and stared at Strange with direct hostility.
                “Is this an official investigation?”
                “No, not at all. However, I require information relating to a current case, and I thought you might be able to supply me with an answer, if your time permits.”
                “What precisely do you need?”
                Strange was leaning over Ensor’s desk, pretending to study the freeze frame of the cerebral scan.
                “Everyone knows you’re an expert on the matter of how far the human nervous system can be pushed and on how much information individual minds are capable of storing.”
                “You might say I’m one of the experts.”
                “My question is this: would it be possible to drain the contents of a human mind by electronic or other means, perhaps using some form of electromagnetic radiation?”
                “It’s something we’ve been working on for years.”
                “You personally?”
                “I am not at liberty to divulge that information.”
                Strange was usually capable of getting the better of Ensor emotionally, but that wasn’t the point. To intimidate or offend him would be to put an end to the conversation. What Strange had to do was to challenge his technical expertise, thus enabling him to display it.
                “No, of course not. But, and I am speaking entirely hypothetically, would such a process destroy the mind, or even put an end to the subject’s life?”
                Ensor let out a snort. “That is the problem. If you have a mind filled with expert information, you do not want to destroy it. A mindprint via MEG might capture it in its current state, but a living mind would continue to develop.”
                “If such a process were applied, using enough radiation to kill the subject, would there be a detectable residue?”
                “Of course, depending on the form of radiation that was employed.”
                “Thank you.” Strange turned to leave the room.
                “Why do you want to know this?”
                Strange turned back to Ensor, and nodded slightly. He would have to tell him something, but the explanation would not be easy.

*                *                *

                When he finally left Ensor’s office, Strange was not entirely satisfied. Ensor had a way of sowing seeds of doubt where none had previously existed, and of nourishing those that were the slenderest of hesitations. If the corporation had conducted a terminal experiment on a human subject, then the case was better left alone.
                There were a number of reasons why Strange had consulted Ensor rather than Slovsky, who as a pathologist might have been a more logical choice. For one thing, Slovsky wouldn’t have finished his analysis yet, and any conclusions would be premature. More important, Strange hadn’t visited Ensor to discover a solution, but to see what his colleague’s reaction would be. Ensor had what was known as a black mind—he was capable of seeing past the superficial, capable of decoding subtleties that other analysts were unaware of. Unfortunately, in this case Ensor knew no more than Strange, and now Strange’s view of the subject was colored by Ensor’s paranoia. If this death wasn’t the result of an experiment, then what the hell was it?
                Strange felt somehow soiled by this line of thought, and he wasn’t sure why. The concept of a terminal experiment recalled his compromised moral position as representative of the corporation, but this wasn’t anything new to him, he carried this feeling of shame with him wherever he went. No, it slowly dawned on him that he was experiencing something on the order of metaphysical fear, a suspicion that it wasn’t only the corporation that might be termed evil, but the entirety of existence.
                When he left the center and stepped out into the street, it was night, the towers of the city spectral in the darkness, an infinite series of lights.

Steven Fraccaro's Dark Angels: A Novel of the Future Past is available as an ebook from The Recalcitrant Press.
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