Lael Gold


               Villages burned while I sat in my racecar waiting. It was a heady summer the summer of 2345 when the ungovernables had finally agreed to be turned to soot as communal, non-cooperative entities. Our special status within the corporate ventures was to make up for our loss. Of course, there were no guarantees about this “special” status. I was, for this reason, always ready to zoom off at a moment’s notice. Smart, I thought then, very clever. In retrospect, I realize that the over roads and under roads were all theirs; that’s why they’d allowed us our vehicles. Eventually, we understood that that last concession, the one on which I personally staked so much—psychologically at least—was no concession at all. In the game of negotiation, especially when a people (well, let’s not be melodramatic—a group) is asked to give up their very way of being, a point is reached when effacement begins early and the will to hold out for meaningful compromise disappears.
               As it has turned out in the two decades since our initial dispersal and subsequent reintegration into the Largeness, we had little to fear, at least when it came to brute survival. Who knew that as outsiders we would be so well positioned to parlay our special status to optimal advantage? They could have their roads upper and roads lower, for God’s sake. We had our romantic image to trade on in this post-coast world where everything is image. (Or should I say, where projected sensation is everything?) The dark smoke of the village conflagrations fairly hung about us for a good five years after the transition, and by then we had our foothold.
               Sometimes I will get out my special status card—the first one we all clung to so tenaciously with all our fear of the unknown, all our desperate worry over absorption—and gaze at it fondly. Yes, it was an angst-ridden summer but, as I say, a heady one as well. How many have agreed to give away not just culture and not just land, not just community but the very dignity of independent abiding? Few understand now what things were like then. Sometimes not even I have the faintest clue.
               Occasionally, as a village survivor, I will trade in raw emotion, one of the few commodities still not under centralized distribution control. The emotionalism can be consumed live by another or saved on a memory device of the buyer’s choosing. Actors have tried to augment their incomes thus, but the true connoisseur can distinguish between the authentic and the ersatz.
               I met Pamela through this sideline. Her husband, a well-established traditionalist, had been a long time consumer of feeling, a specialist even in the facial expression of affect. The two invited me back to their chambers after the exchange, but he was quickly overcome with a need for singular and finite temporal sport. This, of course, left his lovely wife to me. The well-established, as a rule, bore me. Having actually known no place in the Largeness once, I generally feel superior to my supposed superiors. I am hardly alone in this. Among ourselves at the support meetings—perhaps as a form of bitter consolation— we frequently affect disdain for the better positioned. But, as some repeat the saying: where there’s disdain there’s fire. (Given my history, not a metaphor that I take lightly, by the way.)
               Pamela distributed the stimulants more or less according to the latest fashion, and this adherence to social code struck me as infinitely sad, more sad even than her husband’s need to purchase emotive gesture. But when we engaged in one-on-one discussions and talked of this and that, I had to admit that I liked both her this and her that. Neither was au courant. No more so was either merely and unimaginatively retrogressive. Unless there was a geographical element that escaped my ken—not an altogether unlikely possibility—here was a chambered mate with something perhaps personal or individual to her expression and not only in the marketed meanings of those terms.
               “Trespass” was the word that thrummed within my skull rather than my brain. My guilt was physical, in other words—a thing around but not of the mind. Yes, guilt; how very 2320’s of me, I know. But let me clarify: the heat accruing in my chest after airy coitus with my hostess Pamela, the elevated temperature of remorse, had nothing to do with the contractual obligations of that almost quaint bygone era. No, what I felt was unrelated to the business relationship or its concomitant legal ligations. Rather, it was for the husband, the chamber mate who lay strapped down not feet away from us, that I felt this fleeting discomfort. Was I intervening in an opportunity for actual emotion? Or was he someone who only liked to watch? Was his consumption of the emotions of others something he treasured for its own sake, or was it his best approximation of having his own, one might say genuine feelings?
               Surely there could be no thought of more than vocal contact. I spoke of the body and she responded. Breathing, according to the monitors, was elevated. Afterwards, she praised my enunciation, and I realized, with some chagrin, that she was my first established partner in many years. Of course, in the first years following the burnings, the outpouring of sexual service offers was overwhelming for many of my kind. I had the good or, in retrospect, questionable fortune of being in my prime just when the disintegration had rendered us so desirable. Air sex was, in those days, still a matter of demonstrating dogged independence from the passé Darwinian model. Talk about quaint. More like pitiful—the pointed refusal to choose a mate with any social value or positive potential whatsoever was all the vogue. Beyond that and not to be lightly discounted was the timeless (so the archaic visual and auditory records suggest it to be) allure of the darkly tormented. Few knew how to play dark torment for its full potential better than yours truly in those days.
               These days, however, I am tamer, content to sort my past, parcel it out. Pamela gestured to me from the upper recli-deck where she was already replaying the evening. Its image slid across the ceiling and dripped along the walls. (As has become customary among chamber dwellers, she had the player set to liquifaction.) The recent past was no longer such a marvel to me as it is and always has been to the young. Yes, things happen, then they are over. They would become accustomed eventually.
               (It’s not for nothing that the Largeness consortium dedicated to the dispersal of new technologies always targets those under eighty. Despite its hearty campaigns to the contrary, time holds sway over the new devices as well. Either reliving one’s own past or injecting communal nostalgia into a lackadaisical period of post-nurturance—not unlike the phenomena they were meant to capture—both of these functions will degrade over time.)
               Then something strange happened as Pamela and I stood, chins resting on the padded wall-cleft, jaws loosened and eyes fixed on watery versions of our own forms seated and conversing as we had just moments earlier in the central day chamber. Something happened that I will have a hard time describing. Pamela engaged in a practice that any familiar with the archaic visual record will immediately recognize. In her hand, she clasped my hand. Or so it seemed to me. The heat was irregular and the pressure likewise. Not like any interface I have known before or since, there was something truly perverse in the feel of her skin. I was, of course, repelled.
               Only in retrospect does it occur to me to wonder where someone such as Pamela would have developed a taste for such behavior. Certainly my sense of her conventionality was fully displaced by this, to say the least, altogether untoward occurrence. I first thought to create its image on my evening entry but then hesitated. Should or shouldn’t she be allowed such a thing? I’d pulled away and left immediately. I would have to be resealed before schedule, but, as I finally decided, there would be no further thought of keeping this in the record. The regulation of others is not a role I much relish or covet. One minute you are admonishing and the next you are igniting. This I knew only too well.
               Suddenly, our whole conversation prior to sex began to haunt me. Had I in some way given the impression that such a gesture would be remotely welcome? Surely, my village survivor status, featured so prominently in my ad for emotive transfer, did not help. Apparently, she believed—like, I might add, a surprising number of others even in these enlightened times—the very crudest stereotypes and rumors. Just because we were burned out, does not mean that we are charred, filthy!
               However stinging Pamela’s presumption and however sharp my indignation, as it so often does, my rage quickly dissolved into the usual ashen emptiness. Curling myself about its central wrung and grasping my ankles in the standard fashion, I set my compressor to engulf, its very highest setting. As the compressor’s walls closed about me, my eyes relaxed, my mind drifted. Unlike Pamela’s indecipherable gesture, the hum of its motor seemed to tell an old story; yes, an old, old story; a very old story indeed.

Lael Gold, a writer and stand up comedian who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature, has been published in Zeek, The Berkeley Review, 100 Word Story, Rivet, The Big Jewel, and the volume Faulkner’s Inheritance. Recently named "Best Dream Interpreter" by Oakland Magazine, Lael taught literature, film, and creative writing at U.C. Berkeley before founding the dream-related business Productive Slumber as a means of serving writers, the gravely ill, and everyone who sleeps.
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Blogger George said...

This is striking and horrifying, and relevant as hell. And intriguing.

12:23 PM  
Blogger irene said...

Haunting story! I'd say prescient but feels more like some meta-numinous (yea--oneiric??) level of current events reporting...

4:21 PM  

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