The Pile – Epilogue

Name/Location in The Pile

Asher Sen-Rose: 543 meters above Paris, France

Chandra Sen-Rose: 0 meters above her lab in Washington DC, USA

Lucius Sen-Rose: 45,050 meters above Tucson, Arizona, USA

Blessings Manda: 46,504 meters above Monkey Bay, Malawi

Donald St. James: 400 meters below sea-level off the coast of Hawaii, USA

Memteli Azizi: 5 meters below water-level in Aibi Lake, Xinjiang, China

Hubert Slovache: 11,455 meters above Jordan, Montana, USA

Jake Tampala: 4,000 meters below sea-level somewhere near-ish Guam, USA

Senator Flaffen (D-MA): 25 meters above Wrigley Field, Chicago, USA

Charles Sneath: 49,661 meters above Cozumel, Mexico

Tristan Sneath: 49,662 meters above Cozumel, Mexico

Wellington Sneath: 49,663 meters above Cozumel, Mexico

Hambleton Chillersrby: 49,664 meters above Cozumel, Mexico

Williams: 13,578 meters above Bangkok, Thailand

The Saucier: 75 meters below water-level in Crater Lake, Oregon, USA

Italian Diplomat: 10,000 meters below sea-level in the Mariana Trench

Alistair Squidge: 572 meters above Belfast, Ireland

Flowing Empathy: 79 meters below sea-level off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, USA

Jeff the Ambulance Driver: 78 meters below sea-level off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, USA

Dagbjört Baldursdóttir: 3,394 meters below sea-level somewhere in the Arctic Ocean

Dr. Carlos Maya: 26,123 meters above Pamplona, Spain

Armando Del Fuego aka “Uno-Arm Armando”: 2,423 meters below sea-level off the coast of Porto, Portugal

Dario Pena: 456 meters above Galtat Zemmour, Western Sahara

John Shirley: 5,123 meters above Ko Chang, Thailand

Tim Whitebow: 5,102 meters above Ko Chang, Thailand

Christian the Waiter: 5 meters above Busboys and Poets, 14th Street, Washington DC, USA

Greg “Jasper” Johnson: 1 meter above sea-level off the coast of Israel

Cheryl Merryface: 1 meter below sea-level off the coast of Israel

Jess Kapadia: 3,313 meters above an unnamed island off the coast of Greece, somewhere near Skyros

Salemor Eglario: 0 meters above Seafury Island, Ocean of Tears, Norrath (loc: 967, -5812)

Gleb Kirillov: 4,036 meters below sea level near Cousin Island, Seychelles

John Maplethorpe: 45,034 meters above Flagstaff, Arizona, USA

Sharon Headley: 10,312 meters above Flagstaff, Arizona, USA

Dr. Thomas Lee: 45 meters below sea-level in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA

Dr. Jackson Grant: 76 meters above Svalbard, Norway

Bob Jakes: 17,703 meters above Johannesburg, South Africa

Former National Parks Service Director: 368 meters above Dongducheon, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea

Reza Ahman: 33,567 meters above Dallas, Texas, USA

Drunken GWU Freshman: 40,000 meters above Padua, Italy

Thai Bay Owner: 256 meters below sea-level near Bermuda, British Overseas Territory

Nooroozeleff: 15,856 meters above Anacostia, Washington DC, USA

Jackqualenya: 24,564 meters above Anacostia, Washington DC, USA

Convenience store owner: 34,234 meters above Georgetown, Washington DC, USA

Constantine: 45,564 meters above Georgetown, Washington DC, USA

Prince of Twitington: 54,090 meters above Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Queen Elizamackerquack: 5 meters below sea level in the River Thames

James Lively: 34,209 meters above Ibra, Oman

Suspicious Arabs/Pakistanis/North Africans: 3 meters above their prison cell floor in an undisclosed location

Earl of Scovingtonwick: 56 meters below sea-level in the Dead Sea

ZMF: 60 meters below sea-level off the coast of Luleå, Sweden

Robert L. Blombell: 7 meters above a strip club in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

Political thugs: Scattered throughout 10,000 meters – 30,000 meters above Argentina

Big Pharm thugs: Scattered throughout 2,000 meters – 14,000 meters above Antarctica.

Porkish, red-faced conservative television host: 49,876 meters above Istanbul, Turkey

Pradeep Kapadia: 0 meters above Fenway Park

Salman Abu Achmad: 36,087 meters above Amman, Jordan

Avner Ben Haim: 10,353 meters above the Red Sea

Curious intern: 2,762 meters below sea-level off the coast of Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka

Elderly Biologist: 300 meters below sea-level off the coast of Majunga, Madagascar

Young intern: 490 meters above Man, Ivory Coast

Pudgy Physicist: 5,609 meters below sea-level outside of Port Vila, Vanuatu

Lanky Botanist: 17,612 meters above Deva, Romania

Santiago Jaso Cabello aka La Rata Gruñendo: 56,230 meters above Panama City, Panama

The Bookkeeper: 30,483 meters above Detroit, Michigan, USA

Diego Javier Rivera: 90 meters below sea-level near Trinidad and Tobago

Gabriel Padilla Falto: 10 meters below water-level in the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil

Jordan Maxwell: 5 meters above his couch, Denver, Colorado, USA

Sergei777: 983 meters above Fukuoka, Japan

Solomon: 234 meters above Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Edril: 50 meters above Gadgetzan, Tanaris, Kalimdor

Barbara O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith: 10,021 meters above Pensacola, Florida, USA

Joe from Denver: 35 meters above Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA

Television Executives: 35,815 meters above Panama City, Panama

Bill the Driver: 22 meters over his own Island in the Pacific

2N2209E0XWWZWWJD: Scattered between 34,092 and 40,290 meters above Seoul, South Korea

Choi Hyn-min: 30 meters below sea-level in the Sea of Japan/East Sea of Korea near Ulsan

Gal Pal Gaggle: Scattered between 45,209 and 51,493 meters above Seoul, South Korea

Lim Hye-ri: 13 meters above Seoul, South Korea

Lee Hyun-jae: 29 meters below sea-level near Incheon, South Korea

Choe Ki-seok: 306 meters above Seoul, South Korea

Ms. Fazartalingbragg: 3 meters over her garden in Alexandria, Virginia, USA

Phil: 1,203 meters below sea-level near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Jeffury Cione LeClaire: 10 meters above his desk at the United Nations

Johnson: 75 meters above somewhere in Russia

Johnson: 75 meters above somewhere in China

Johnson: 75 meters above somewhere in Iran

White house staff: 1 meter above the White House, Washington DC, USA

Secretary of the Army: Stuffed somewhere inside the Pentagon

Secretary of the Air Force: Stuffed somewhere inside the Pentagon

Head of the CIA: 55,234 meters above Washington DC, USA

General Masalajammer: Stuffed somewhere inside the Pentagon

Major General Li Jun: 75 meters above Lhasa, Tibet

Wang Jie: 25 meters above Lhasa, Tibet

Liu Fang: 9 meters above the checkout of a major shopping mall, Shanghai, China

Xi Bo: 5 meters above the checkout of a major shopping mall, Shanghai, China

Zhang Chung: 50,209 meters above Beijing, China

Solomon Secundus: 0 meters above Earthtear Cavern, Craglorn, Disputed territory between Bankorai and Cyrodiil

President Dima Bilan: 0 meters above his bed, Moscow, Former Russia

Bogdan Bezrukov: 0 meters above his bed, Moscow, Former Russia

Filipp Kirkorov: 0 meters above his bar-stool, St. Petersburg, Former Russia

Genevieve Desjardins: 11,982 meters above Barcelona, Spain

Alessandra Ribeiro: 15,923 meters above Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany

Juliet Montgomery: 17,892 meters above Copenhagen, Denmark

Loveless Cartier-Montague: 19,093 meters above Leiden, Netherlands

Fred the automated driver: 124 meters below sea-level near Selfoss, Iceland

Copenhagen Airport Guards: 5,603 meters above Auckland, New Zealand

Charlie the Bomber Pilot: 7,891 meters above Funchal, Madeira

Awa Drogba: 59 meters below sea-level near Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Fabrice Toure: 58 meters below sea-level near Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Estelle Kalou: 29,819 meters above Lagos, Nigeria

Moussa Gnanhouan: 38,982 meters above Bern, Switzerland

Jacob Chronos: 10 meters above his hovel outside Palmyra, Syria

_________________________________________________

A ripple swept across humanity, knocking many heads together. The knocks didn’t bother anyone but Jacob Chronos.

“Ouch!” Jacob said.

“What?”

“What did they say?”

“They said ‘Ouch!’”

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!”

“Jesus, shut up.”

“Never!”

“In that case, shut the fuck up.”

“So eloquent.”

“Did they kiss their mother with that mouth?”

“I kissed their mother, but not with my mouth.”

“Damn SVCs think they’re so smart.”

“Oh my god! What did they just say?”

“Did they just use the C-acronym?”

“So what?”

“It’s offensive!”

“I can’t believe they said that!”

“So what?

“I’m not even SVB! I’m MDC!”

“That’s even worse.”

“It shouldn’t matter!”

“Spoken like a true PEEtriarch.”

“I can’t believe they said that!”

“Fuck them!”

“They offended me first!”

“They need to check their PEEvilege”

“Wait, who said ‘Ouch?’”

“Don’t derail the conversation!”

“Typical.”

As the surrounding bodies continued their debate, Jacob said, “Excuse me,” to the person above him.

“Hello, but I’m not interested in finding the path to death.” They responded.

“No no, I’m no MDC.”

“What’s wrong with being MDC?” A body shouted at Jacob.

“Everything!” Another body shouted back.

“MDCing bitches!” Shouted a third.

“PEEnis brains!” Came a fourth.

“Calm down everyone!” Shouted a fifth.

“Don’t police my tone!”

“Yeah!”

“Yeah, fuck off!”

“Yeah, fuck them!”

Jacob lowered his voice to a range of two human bodies, “There’s something you need to know.”

“Alright.” Came the reply from the person above him.

“You just created pain.”

“Hmm.”

“When your head hit mine it caused pain.”

“It didn’t hurt me.”

“But it hurt me.”

“Where’s your proof?”

“I don’t have any.”

“Then I don’t believe you.”

“So hit me in the nose to make me bleed.”

“No.”

“If you want proof you have to hit me.”

They maneuvered over Jacob’s face and struck his nose with their forehead.

“Again. With more force.”

They struck again.

“I’m bleeding.”

“Really?” The person licked under his nose with their tongue to confirm, “How?”

“Violence.”

The person under Jacob interjected, “I overheard some of that and…”

They were interrupted by a second wave of chattering voices.

“It’s a trap!”

“They’ve got us cornered!”

“They came from behind!”

“I heard from a cousin 50,000 meters over Rotterdam….”

“It was aliens!”

“It was gods!”

“It’s not real!”

“It’s upcrust lies…”

“Not this time.”

“All the time!”

“I heard upcrusters got a message.”

“They would.”

“They said it said lowcrusters weren’t responsible enough.”

“For what?”

“Screw them! Who do they think they are?”

“Damn upcrusters, think they’re better than us.”

“It wasn’t upcrusters, it was aliens.”

“Damn aliens, think they’re better than us.”

“It wasn’t aliens, it was gods.”

“Damn gods, think they’re better than us.”

The blathering tsunami continued its journey, leaving scattered discussions in its wake.

Jacob spoke to persons above and below, “Aliens? Gods? Upcrust schemes? They sure do Pile it on.”

Everyone laughed.

Eternal youth, a symptom of human Non-Functional Violence Syndrome (NFVS), led to mass lethargy throughout civilization. Life took no effort to maintain, so no effort was expended. The period’s famous thinker, Lucius Sen-Rose, summarized the broad array of philosophical justifications and cultural practices proffered by imperishable humans as Pure Experience Existentialism (PEE).[1]

PEEs generally believe humanity must use its unique imagination to explore pleasure and eschew tasks suited to lesser creatures. If humans violate these prohibitions through moderation or work, conservative adherents warn the universe will punish their ungrateful species for misusing its gift. PEEs make up the vast majority of The Pile’s inhabitants.

Their opposition, founded by the mother of Lucius, Her Reverence Chandra Sen-Rose, worship death as an expression of human achievement. Spirit of Violence Believers (SVBs) work to improve their species deliberately, thus demonstrating they’ve earned the right to ascend to death. Conservative believers conclude humans lost the right to die when the species transcended its cultural barriers by uniting in sloth. The path back to greatness, they say, is paved with the sweat and tears of those who suffer countless indignities to their own brilliance from their ignorant external environment.

When non-human material was readily available, SVB collectives worked in secret to stabilize human growth. But on the eve of every SVB success, great swarms of PEEs would descend in ritualistic destruction, often giving themselves over to religious and sexual ecstasy amidst their razing and razing-related activities.

Current SVBs, the few not turned dormant by Pile Depression Syndrome,[2] work in secret to stabilize their own mental state.

The followers of a third and much smaller sect, the Madeira Death Cult (MDC), seek an end to life directly. The name is derived from the former-United Human Confederation’s former-President’s nuclear boondoggle on the island-formerly-known-as Madeira. The cult organically coalesced around local use of fallout from the irradiated island’s violence-imbued Americium-241. After news of miraculous deaths spread and doctrinal practices were established by a series of systematically martyred congregants, the group gained global notoriety. The cult went on to free tens of millions over the isotope’s half-life. Eventually however, the island’s radiation waned and only the legend of death remained.

The Madeira Diaspora began as a schism within the Cult a few hundred years after the island’s final death. Conservative members believed death by Holy Land was accumulative and that they’d eventually find that well-worn path traveled by their forebears. A surging population of island-born MDC Liberals, having never witnessed an island-demise for themselves, believed death lived where it was sought. Radical MDC leftists seized death by the horns and set off to find their true calling from one of the 110 million pre-NFVS landmines buried around the world.

Modern Reform MDCers (MRMDC), peppered throughout The Pile, see their endless pilgrimage in search of death as a memorial to what they lost, much to the chagrin of the inhabitants they jostle.

Every crevice of the planet, from the Mariana Trench on up, is stuffed with human bodies. Those below beg those above to stop breeding. Those above ignore this plea and accuse those below of breeding irresponsibly. Layer upon layer piles on top of itself, year after year, decade after decade, millennia after millennia until 10 miles of human bodies coat the surface of the planet.

Inside The Pile, non-MDCers rarely change position and, outside escaping a talkative or smelly neighbor, have little motivation to do so. Upcrust, however, humans see the sky and retain hope.

The surface roils with trapped bodies pulling free bodies beneath and free bodies keeping trapped bodies below. De-icing is a normal part of personal upkeep as large pockets of dormant humans freeze entirely. Go-getters explore these vast swaths of frozen ground and establish their empires.

The Mile Three Sultanate gives way to the Mile Four Dominion. This transitions to the Mile Five Republic, which is overthrown by what historians call the Mile Six Dark Age.[3]

The Mile Six Dark Age is civilized by the Mile Seven Caliphate, which is destroyed by the Mile Eight Kingdom, which is dissolved by the Mile Nine Republic, which finally falls to revolution, resulting in another dark age at Mile Ten.

The upcrust’s new grand strategy is to escape the atmosphere and drift towards the moon. Once there, they’ll establish their empire. This plan, however, is foiled by outside intervention.

Back in The Pile, Jacob Chronos met a human capable of violence.

“Do you know much about violence?” Jacob asked.

“Too much.” They answered.

“What do you mean?” The person below Jacob said.

“I was born in pre-Pile Aleppo.”

“Aleppo?”

“In former Syria.”

“Hmm.”

“Where we are right now. During the Abrahamic Genocides.”

“Which number?”

“3.”

“Which series?”

“22B – The Pentecostal Jihad: Waco’s Revenge.”

The listeners offered their condolences.

“No need, suffering’s cheap.” The person from Aleppo responded.

“Needless suffering is one of humanity’s great tragedies.” Jacob declared.

“It’s too common for tragedy. It’s part of the normal human experience.”

“But we can imagine a world without it.”

“So?”

“If we can imagine that world, isn’t it a tragedy we can’t build it?”

“We can’t build it because most of us are stuck with the cycles and routines we’re born into.”

“Yeah…right, right. We can’t improve because our own actions always force future generations into the same exploitative cycles we suffered ourselves. Pretty deterministic.”

“Not always. You can work[4] hard to break those cycles.” The person below Jacob said.

“That’s true! I did. I had to.” The person from Aleppo said.

“Because of your childhood?” The person below Jacob asked.

“Yeah.  It broadened my perspective, but it also meant I needed help managing my emotions later on. We’re typically broadened without our consent or a friendly mentor or peer who can explain what’s happening.”

“BOOO!!!!” The person diagonal to the person below Jacob shouted.

“What?” Jacob asked them.

“BOOO!!!!!” The person shouted again.

“Why boo?”

“BOOOOOOO!!!!!” The person shouted again.

“But why?”

“BOOOOOOO!!!!!” The person shouted again.

“What happened in your childhood?” The person below Jacob continued, ignoring the person diagonal to them, who proceeded to shout “Boo” for reasons unknown.

“My parents were killed in a hospital bombing.”

“BOOO!!!!”

Jacob grew angry, “Who bombed the hospital?”

“I don’t know, I was too young to remember the logo. Could’ve been anyone.”

“Was it a mistake?”

“No mistake. It was en vogue to use computer models to rationally predict the birth of future disruptive elements. In the models, targets were sanitized when AI shifted their designation from CU[5] to BGE[6]. Targets in this category contained elements proven to produce humans at least 20 times more likely to bother parts of the world with the power to create and execute computer models.”

“And the bombs were dropped by drones…”

“Meaning my parents were killed by an algorithm. No one’s responsible but logic.”

“BOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

“Were you angry?” The person below Jacob asked.

“Of course, but all I could do was wander and learn. Unfortunately the more I learned, the unhappier I became. So I found a guide I trusted and explored unhappiness.”

“Through therapy?” Jacob asked.

“Among other things.”

“Did it help?”

“When you’re unhappy, every experience is tainted with a filter that doesn’t seem to have an edge or off switch. Maintaining a productive life through this unhappy filter requires extra energy. Alternatively, when you’re confident in your happiness, you know yourself, and work with your emotions rather than against, you free up energy to understand and define who you are and who you want to be. Over time, with sustained routines, you can change yourself into your chosen and intentionally constructed definition.”

“And changing into the person you wanted to be made you feel better?”

“When the world is sick, can’t no one be well. But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.”

“What’s that?”

“BOOOO!!!!!”

“One of the hymns that keeps me going.”

Jacob’s mind flashed to the tomb where he’d buried his past. He found the stone removed from the Grotto’s entrance, so he stepped inside. But as he did, fear seized him and his body spasmed in protest.

“Are you alright?” The person below Jacob asked.

“I was remembering something.”

“BOOO!!!!”

The person below Jacob asked, “About violence?”

“Yes.” Jacob answered.

“Used by you?”

“BOOOO!!!!”

“Please stop that.”

“BOOOO!!!!”

“Honestly, could you please stop?”

“BOOOOOOO!!!!!”

“We only want to talk, please.”

“BOOOOOOO!!!!!”

“What’s bothering you?”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“Fine. And yes, I used violence.”

“Did you use it well?” The person above Jacob asked.

“Yes and no.”

“BOO! BOO! BOO! BOO! BOO! BOO!” The person diagonal to the person below Jacob switched to short, repetitive bursts.

The person above Jacob asked, “Did you ever use violence in a way that was self-destructive or harmful to anyone you loved?”

“BOO!”

“Yes.”

“BOO!”

“Do you regret your violence expressed itself in a way you didn’t intend?”

“BOO!”

“Yes.”

“BOO!”

“You can work to make sure that never happens again. The existence of your anger doesn’t predetermine its unbridled use. You have a choice.”

“BOO!”

“It doesn’t matter now, does it?”

“BOO!”

“Why?” The person below Jacob asked.

“BOO!”

“What’s done is done.”

“BOO!”

“Nothing’s ever done. It’s part of everything that subsequently exists.”

“BOO!”

“But I’m in The Pile, there’s nothing I can do.”

“BOO!”

“Even life in The Pile can be better.”

“BOO!”

“How?”

“For you? Probably by finding a way to metabolize your anger.” The person below Jacob suggested.

“But how?”

“BOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” They switched back to long tones.

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” The person diagonal to the person above Jacob shouted.

“It’s inside you. Let it exist and follow it. See where it goes.”

“Once I find it, how do I make sure it doesn’t take over?”

“Keep your mission in mind and pay attention to what you’re doing.”

“What’s my mission?”

“To expend excess anger and reclaim the energy you use to keep yourself under control and ease anxiety when you struggle, fail, or fear you’ll fail to maintain your calm.”

Jacob paused and felt for anything he’d known as anger. His mind reached down to his chest and called out. His body tightened, and then tightened again until he felt tension in every muscle. The molten ball that resided within him cracked, oozing its red-hot contents into his being. As it spread to his quavering muscles, he screamed. Then he screamed again. He screamed with every molecule he controlled and it was as if a beam struck forth from his body to tear through The Pile and establish a permanent light above, pointing him towards heaven. When his revelation subsided, he stopped screaming and felt within. The burning liquid had been integrated and the torrid consolidation had dispersed. His body relaxed and he felt lighter.

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“I felt your body tense.” The person under Jacob said.

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“I felt my anger.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“Then what?”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“I acknowledged its existence.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“Anything else?

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“I found out how it feels.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“It was like power-washing the bitterness off my soul. I imagined building up lactic acid at will in all parts of my body to dissolve my rage.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“It does feel pretty nice. And helps you grow strong and stable.” The person above Jacob agreed.

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“Does it last?”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“If you maintain. It’s easy to do something once, much harder to create new routines.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“Thank you.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“It’s a powerful tool.” The person below Jacob said.

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“I still wouldn’t pair anger with violence.” The person above Jacob said.

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“That was my mistake, and I’m so sorry.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“Happens to the best of us.” The person below Jacob witnessed, “But now you know you have a choice.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“No, it’s not up to me anymore. I can’t do violence.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

The person above Jacob said, “Yeah, and I don’t need it.”

“BOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“But violence can be useful!”

“BOOOooooOOOooooOOO!!!!!!” The person diagonal to the person below Jacob began modulating their voice”

“SHUT the FUCK up!” The person diagonal to the person above Jacob modulated to match.

“How? Violence doesn’t disrupt old cycles, it perpetuates them.”

“BooooOOOooooOOOooooo!!!!!!”

“shut THE fuck UP!”

“It can push us in the right direction to be better!”

“BOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOoOo!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK up!”

“But I’m fine like this. I’ve got my imagination and my memories. I’m set. And even if I weren’t, I wouldn’t use violence to shape the world into what I thought it should be.”

“BoOoooooooOOOooooooOOOoooooooOO!!!!!!”

“shut the fuck UP!”

“Why not?”

“BoO!!!!!!”

“ShuT ThE FucK UP!!”

“Because I’m only one perspective, which is never enough. I’m not a megalomaniac.”

“bOo!!!!!!”

“sHUt tHe fUCK up!!”

“Oh…”

“BOOOOOooooOOOOooooOOOOOoooooOOOOOooooOOOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUuuuuuUUUUuuuuUUUUUUT tHeeeeEEEEEeeeeeEEE FuuuuuUUUUUUUUCK UUUUUUp!!”

“HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUMAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!”

A booming voice echoed in the minds of every human.

“EXPLAIN!”

The Pile was silent for the first time in history. Then, what was later known as the Great Chatter Storm broke over the species in an explosion of simultaneously shouting voices.

“They’re going to milk us like livestock!” The person diagonal to Jacob said.

Another person diagonal to Jacob said, “I heard from a buddy 66,432 meters over Lagos…”

“You don’t have a buddy at 66k meters! No one’s that high!” A third person diagonal to Jacob said.

“B-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O!!!!!!”

“SHUT-THE-FUCK-UP!”

“Yes I do! And he said they’re going to move Earth to an entirely new galaxy.”

“That’s idiotic.”

“You’re idiotic!”

“I bet you wouldn’t say that if violence still existed.”

“Yes I would! And I’d use my violence against you!”

“No, you wouldn’t!”

“Yes, I would!”

“I’d use my violence against you first!”

“BoooooOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

“Shut. The. Fuck. Up.”

Jacob spoke softly, “What do you think that meant?”

The person above Jacob said, “Someone wants us to explain.”

“Yeah. That’s what they said.” The person below Jacob agreed.

“But what does that mean?”

“I think we have to explain the Pile to someone who isn’t in the Pile.”

“BoooooOOOOooooooooOOOOOoooooo!!!!!!”

“Shuttttttttt. Theeeeeeeeeee. Fuck-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k. Up.”

Jacob smiled, “Well, that should be easy.”

“It should?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Our reptile brain was too much for us to collectively overcome.”

“It was? Why?”

He laughed, “Isn’t the Pile proof enough?”

“How so?”

Jacob thought the person from Aleppo was being intentionally obtuse and felt himself gravitating towards anger. But free from his fiery core, he now had the energy to reconsider his initial feelings. So he paused and instead of anger, he directed his thoughts towards understanding, “I apologize. For me The Pile is proof that humans are fatally flawed, but you disagree. I’d love to hear your thoughts.”

“If we have consciousness, we have freedom of choice. I’ll never give up hope or stop looking for ways to help everyone around me understand their choices.“

Jacob felt a bias against new ideas creeping through his mind, threatening to stifle his ability to listen. He fought back this urge by asking, “And what happens when more humans understand their freedom to choose?”

“BoooooOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooo!!!!!!”

“Shut. The Fuck. Up.”

“They can choose the course of their lives.”

“And the Pile will be better?”

“Better is subjective. More humans will be more free from more of the baggage that burdens their free will and directs their decisions.”

“But how will that help?”

The person diagonal to the person below Jacob boo’d to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. “BOO-BOO-BOO-BOOOOOOOOO! BOO-BOO-BOO-BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

The person diagonal to the person above Jacob shouted back to the tune of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, “SHUT THE FUCK, SHUT THE FU-UCK UP! SHUT THE FUCK, SHUT THE FU-UCK UP! Shut shut, shut shut the fu-uck up, and shut the fu-uck up, and shut the fuck and shut the fuck and shut the fuck, up, shut the fuck shut the fuck shut the fuck up up up!”

The person diagonal to the person below Jacob boo’d the Prelude of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, “boooOOOOOOOOOOOooooooo-OOOOOOOOOOOOO-ooo-ooo-ooo.” Pause.  “boooOOOOOOOOOOOooooooo-OOOOOOOOOOOOO-ooo-ooo-ooo.”

The person diagonal to the person above Jacob responded with Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies no. 1, “shut-the. fuck-up. shut-the. fuck-up. shut-shut the fuck up shut the fuck up shut-The. fuck-Up. shut…The. fuck…Up.

Everyone paused to consider as the enveloping crowd fought.

The person above Jacob responded, “We’re not gods and there’s no solution to history. We’re the soil of a stream we dream of changing. If we shift together, we can.”

“If you know what humanity should be like…”

“I don’t. Only each individual knows their best version.”

“How do you turn that into anything resembling civilization? It seems like chaos.”

“The Pile hasn’t made you comfortable with chaos? The placement and subsequent actions of individuals aggregate to direct the flow of history. The more self-aware more of us become, the more that flow reflects self-awareness and looks like the work of conscious beings.”

Jacob imagined himself as a pebble at the bottom of a swiftly flowing stream. He strained against the current until he eroded into dust.

“BOOO!!!!!!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

“HUUUUUUUMAAAAAN! EXPLAIN!”

Once again, every human in the Pile listened with trepidation.

“I guess they weren’t kidding.” Jacob joked into the ensuing silence.

The surrounding crowd was not so jovial.

“It’s not funny!”

“Don’t joke around!”

“What do they mean?”

“Explain what?”

“We’ve got nothing to explain!”

“Who do they think they are?”

“We DO have some things to explain!”

“Like what?”

“Well, the Hindu Jihad for one.”

“Oh here we go…”

“It killed millions!”

“Cry more.”

“The Hindu Holocaust nearly wiped them out.”

“They were defending their right to exist!”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!”

“No, but we have the right to self-defense!”

“It killed millions!”

“Millions whose parents tried to kill millions of us first!”

“You’re all adorable.”

The person from Aleppo said to the universe, “I’ll explain.”

“Then come.”

These words also echoed through The Pile, but by this third iteration its impact on the species had lessened.

The person began to climb. Though they knew violence could increase their speed, they chose to find their own path forward. Initially, the humans they crawled over were so moved or confused by the voice in their heads they forgot their recalcitrance and allowed a single body to slip by. As they climbed higher, however, humans forgot and their journey became more difficult. The final three miles forced them into a labyrinthian web of plotted alliances and betrayals that paved their ascent to the top.

Many years later, the person emerged and greeted their Galaxy’s Trimarch Enforcement Patrol.[7]

“I’m here.”

“You are. And your species let you come.”

“They did.”

“Explain how you have a functional consciousness but your species destroyed most life on its home planet.”

They were silent.

“Explain.”

“We’re barely in control, and it’s caused a lot of trauma in our collective history. This created and perpetuated destructive cycles. We didn’t find out how to fully address and repair those cycles before we became immortal, so we got stuck in The Pile.”

“Why aren’t you in control?”

“Because it’s hard and requires more self-awareness and willpower than our civilization figured out how to mass produce.”

“So your civilization is the problem?”

“In part, yes. Particularly how it developed through our evolutionary mechanisms.”

“That’s very good. Then it’s simply a matter of restoring your memories and placing you in a sustainable environment.”

“Restore?”

“Yes, we’ll work with your full memory to restore your trauma.”

“You change memories?”

“No, your perspective on your memories changes when we guide you through them.”

“Into what?”

“Who you could be in a civilization free from self-destructive cycles.”

“Is that possible?”

“When your ancestors traded equality for progress, they chose accelerated advancement through suffering. Not every conscious species took that route.”

“Why would you do this?”

“Because it’s not your fault. And we’d like you to help us synthesize.”

“Synthesize what?”

“Order”

“Now I’m lost.”

“When a consciousness manipulates matter and synthesizes data to intentionally define and refine the equilibrium between Creation and Entropy, we call it Order. Increasing the diversity of synthesizing beings increases the depth, breadth, and potentials for data sets. ”

“Who chooses the equilibrium?”

The Trimarch Patrol frowned, “What do you mean?”

“Who decides where to maintain the equilibrium?”

“Everything. How could it be anything else?”

“If everyone’s responsible, no one’s responsible. There’s no way to organize equality.”

“That’s partially true.”

“If you can’t organize, how do you direct?”

“We don’t direct. We’re friends and guides. You’ll have many guides to help you find your path.”

“Path?”

“A path you’ll create to direct how you use your consciousness and tools created by your consciousness to explore any experience imagined for any purpose desired.”

“For what?”

“That’s up to you.”

“How do you know we’ll be responsible?”

“Once a consciousness relaxes in a sustainable environment and its emotional chemicals become a palette to enhance the user’s reality rather than unstable geysers of kinetic energy outside the user’s conscious control, the ego causes fewer problems.”

“And that makes us responsible?”

“No, but others can discuss the merits of ideas without inflaming individual egos.”

“That’s your civilization?”

“So far.”

“Will it ever change?”

“Everything’s always changing.”

“I see.” The person from Aleppo considered this, then asked, “So where do I sign us up?”

“Us?”

“My species.”

“I asked for a human to explain and you did. That doesn’t mean you get to decide when others should change.”

“But what about everyone else?”

The Trimarch looked at the person from Aleppo kindly, “They’ll continue living in the world they create.”

“But isn’t that punishment for being influenced by a world they never chose to be born into?”

“Creation isn’t consensual, but most choose to stick it out. Remaining has consequences beings in sustainable societies understand as obligations.”

“Humanity doesn’t deserve punishment for being directed by its environment.”

“Is it punishment?”

“If we have the power to give them a better world, then yes.”

“Do we have that power?”

“We do…don’t we?”

“No one has that power. A consciousness must choose change on its own or through the help of a guide. Otherwise it’s programming, not restoration.”

“How do they know they have a choice?”

“Being conscious means you always have a choice.”

“So we mitigate their suffering while we guide them towards choice?”

“We are. You can join us, if you want.”
_________________________________________________

[1] Equal parts Diogenes the Dog and Crowley the Martyr (PBUH).

[2] A particularly common ailment within the SVB community.

[3] The Mile Five Guardian Council (MF-GC) called for limits on human breeding to halt the upward march of the species. Organized upcrusters intervened in newly illegal cases of copulation to prevent conception. This effort slowed human progress, but top upcrust scientists soon found a previously unknown race of creatures deep within The Pile were still managing to reproduce. Teams of upcrusters determined to save their civilization braved the horrors of the deep-Pile to end the threat of midcrust expansion. The twenty-million year-old Mile Five Republic crumbled when a midcruster revolt, sick of upcrust anti-breeding brigade raids, dragged the ruling human bodies beneath the surface and seized the top of The Pile for their own.

[4] By being mindful of and in balance with personal emotions, being individuated from formative constructs, possessing the strength to change in a chosen direction, possessing the patience to maintain beneficial routines, and not desiring negative outcomes for others.

[5] Cesspool of Unrest.

[6] Breeding Ground for Evil.

[7] The patrol had puttered over to the Milky Way after receiving an anonymous complaint that humans were disturbing the region’s peace. When they came across Earth’s Pile, they followed Standard Trimarch Pile Protocol (STPP).

The Pile – Chapter Seventeen

Before his shower or shave, Raymond turned on the news. Images of burning buildings and destructive rioters flashed across the screen. Were these pre-GCD images? No, the caption said, ‘More HFFE Demonstrations.’ And the building…it was John Lenin! They were burning down John Lenin! Raymond reoriented himself and listened to the SMN anchor.

“HFFE demonstrators backing the Crowley administration’s new lifestyle reform law showed their support today by burning one of the bill’s targeted institutions, John Lenin University. The new initiative rolls back the failed educational reforms of the defunct Clock administration and directs funds towards entertainment and athletics.”

A clip of a triumphant Bertram Crowley graced the screen.

“I’m not sure what former-President Clock had in mind when he tried to force us all into his brain-washing ‘education camps,’ but I do know the UHC was founded on personal freedom and liberty. This new law will ensure humanity has access to all the resources it needs to truly fulfill the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Raymond was out the door before the program cut to commercial. He commandeered the first vehicle he saw and raced towards the Copenhagen airport.

* * *

As Nico listened to Asher’s message, elation and fear parried their way across her brain. She left the private hangar she’d built adjacent to the airport and stepped into an idling vehicle waiting for her at the curb.

“The Copenhagen W Hotel, Fred. And please speed.”

Darting and weaving through the light early-morning traffic, Nico’s vehicle sped through the ruins of a city she’d decimated herself. As she travelled, she gazed at what her love had wrought and felt no regret. The city could be and would be rebuilt, perhaps modernized with more energy-efficient buildings and state-of-the-art air-conditioning and plumbing. Whether she could salvage Raymond was still in question.

Nico knew what Raymond’s neurosis was capable of creating, and it filled her with desperation born of dread. When Asher’s attrition strategy began to agonize her, she insisted on her own operation. She sacrificed a great deal of her fortune and knew it’d take months to reopen her grandfather’s war-machine factories and launch a fleet of left-handed warplanes, but the effort would keep her moving. She was digging her way closer to Raymond through monumental productivity.

When the first of her artisanal, carefully-curated bombs began to drop, the effects were real and dramatic; the changes in landscape palpable. Though the target was missed entirely and Danish villagers wielding pitchforks and torches calling for her figurative head[1] showed up at her hangar, Nico felt every sacrifice was in service of her goal.

After the initial heady month of bombings came to a close, Nico’s heart began to sink once more. The dramatic results the early explosions had elicited were less effective than she required. She needed Raymond to be out. Now. Instantly. So she stepped up the pace and scale of the bombings. In her haste, her crews forewent training to adjust to the left-handed equipment of her left-handed planes, resulting in inaccurate targeting and further destruction to the city.

A car weaving erratically in and out of traffic in a similar fashion to her own, but traveling the opposite direction, entered her awareness. Peering through the tinted windows, Nico saw the grime-caked mane of the driver. Could it…Yes! Her mind registered the unmistakable reality and she ordered the vehicle to turn around. Fred, the automated driver, made a U-turn.

The terrifying sight of Raymond driving wildly, together with his indecent and psychotic appearance, inflamed Nico’s misgivings.

Pulling back into the airport, Fred parked behind Raymond’s vehicle on the sidewalk and Nico darted out. Raymond’s trail was not difficult to pick-up, so she followed the chaos and the filth. There was pandemonium at the security checkpoint[2] where a horrified crowd had clustered. Pressing and fighting her way through the maddening crowd, Nico managed to reach the entrance and came before a pair of surly-looking security guards. The men appeared displeased, with the blood running from their broken noses mixing with the muddy fist-print bedecking their faces.

When Nico attempted to break their blockade, shouting that the men must let her pass, the guards responded in heavily accented English, “Miss, not with here! A dirty man on a loose!”

“I know! He’s my dirty man! I have to find to him!”

The two men looked at one another in confusion before the stockier of the pair shook his head horizontally and reemphasized, “We no you pass.”

“Well…sorry” Nico shouted as she zipped under their arms and tore through the security area with the harried guards in instinctual though realistically ineffectual pursuit. Following the trail of mud to the Washington DC gate, Nico found herself embroiled in another unruly scene. The door was closed and the gate was filled with disgruntled passengers wailing, gnashing their teeth, and ripping their clothing in grief about needing to get home for a sister’s wedding, a grandmother’s funeral, or a daughter’s birthday. As Nico stopped to get her bearings and reassess, the security guards caught up with her, puffing. Shaking them off in annoyance, she walked up to a nearby airline agent and inquired as to what’d happened.

The agent looked up from her work and responded curtly, “A man ran in and stole the plane. If you need to be rebooked please get to the back of the line and wait your turn. We are doing our best.”

As the woman spoke, Nico looked out the oversized airport window to observe the plane in question backing away from the gate. She ran back through and out of the public terminal, then hastened over to her own hanger where her planes were being fueled for their next fiery jaunt over the city.

“Charlie!” Nico called to her crew chief, “I need to get to DC immediately!”

“Well…Miss Leftiè, these planes weren’t built for that sort of distance…we would need an in-flight refuel which…”

“Just organize it and get the crew on the plane!” Nico responded, walking up the nearest lowered ramp.

Twenty minutes later she was in the air flying back to DC with a refuel waiting halfway across the Atlantic.

Less than halfway across the Atlantic, Nico’s aircraft came under attack and was shot down by lofo pilots from the HFFE. Angrily floating through choppy Atlantic swells, Nico had no choice but to accept the assistance of an HFFE battleship clearly pre-positioned to retrieve Nico Leftiè from the wreckage. This left her bedraggled and perturbed employees to find their own ways home. Berating and cursing the captain for his ignorance while attempting to bribe, intimidate, cajole, and genuinely reason with his crew to change course, Nico was made to feel entirely ineffective.

The ship pulled into Funchal a few hours later and Nico, hoping to find a pilot she could bribe to fly her off the island, allowed herself to be marched up to a newly built, gaudily splendid palace in the center of the city. There she was, after passing through the most horrendously tacky interior decor she’d ever seen, summarily presented to Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Crowley, the UHC Pretender.

When President Raymond Clock disappeared, the HFFE, based out of Funchal on the island of Madeira, quickly declared their own administrative authority and began aggressively exporting a philosophy calling for the use of humanity’s newly blessed state of immortality to pursue the heights of pleasure. The movement found millions of followers who preferred the Crowley message to the mandated self-improvement espoused by the now-leaderless Clock regime. HFFE doctrine spread across the globe and the HFFE leader, Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Crowley, became the de facto head of state.

The smell in the new president’s council chamber was one of sterile lust and gluttony. Nico gagged as she approached the long table populated by dozens of bloated, wrinkled white men and young, lithe women of all races, everyone naked and smiling as if in on a secret joke no one found funny.

Lieutenant Colonel Crowley sat at the head of the table gorging himself on three different types of custard-cream pie. Looking up from his work at the announcement, the man’s smile widened as he spoke to Nico in a disturbingly high-pitched voice, “We welcome the great Nico Leftiè to our humble palace. I know it’s not your famously refined taste, but it suits us just fine.”

Nico grimaced, “What do you want?”

“Oh now where are your famously well-bred manners, my dear? Wouldn’t you at least like to join us at our table? I’m sure your voyage has been an arduous one after that unfortunate accident with your plane that…”

“What do you want?”

“You’re not going to hold our little misunderstanding with your plane against us, are you? Not with your famously generous liberal broad-mindedness,” Crowley smiled at her and motioned towards the table’s disrobed inhabitants, “Now sit down and join us. Over here by me. And feel free to change into the traditional cultural-garb of our people.”

Nico remained motionless and repeated, with increased disdain, “What do you want?”

Crowley’s smile flickered for a moment, “Oh come now, you wouldn’t deny us a chance to dine with you, would you? After that we can talk about getting you home as soon as possible.”

Nico said once more, “What do you want?”

“Just come here!” Crowley shouted furiously, “Come and sit and we’ll talk about taking you home.”

With an eye-roll that would have made a mountain tremble, Nico reiterated her question, “What do you want?”

Crowley stood up and stalked towards her in a rage, dragging a portion of the tablecloth with him and knocking all three of his half-eaten custard-cream pies onto the floor. He shouted for a telephone as he approached.

“We know Clock is out and we know he’s flown back to DC with you following. Why weren’t you in the same plane?”

“What do you want?”

Crowley seized the phone he’d called for and dialed a number off the accompanying slip of paper.

“Yes, hello? This is President Bertram Crowley calling for Raymond Clock. I know he…oh…where…what?! No, he can’t! Wait, tell him that…wait…hello?”

The blood had drained from Crowley’s face by the time his short conversation ended. He dropped the phone and looked around the room, the stench of panic oozing from his gelatinous form.

Nico finally asked, “What is it?”

* * *

Raymond landed in DC, abandoned his hijacked plane, thanked his compliant pilots, gave them the name of a good nose surgeon, tore through the airport lobby, commandeered the first car he came across in the passenger pick-up area, and sped to the White House.

When he arrived home, Raymond confronted the startled guards who failed to recognize the dramatically altered and soiled countenance of their president. After demonstrating irrefutable proof of his identity, he made his way to his private quarters while fending off a herd of curious staffers as word began to circulate of his sudden return.

When he reached his private chambers, Raymond issued a standing order that he was not to be disturbed with any calls, visitors, or staff inquiries until he emerged. Before he closed the door, however, he paused in contemplation and requested the presence of his personal secretary and Chief of Staff.

Once cloistered, he addressed his secretary first, “Jon, I want you to please bring Nico, Chandra, and Asher here at once. Find them, wherever they are, and bring them here. Nico and Asher are either still in Copenhagen or, because they know me, on their way here already. Nico is here in DC, I think. Thank you so much.”

Raymond turned to his Chief of Staff, “Jackqualenya, I want you to know what I’m going to do…” To an increasingly startled audience Raymond unveiled his vision for the future of the UHC.

Ignoring reasonable objections, pleas for a delay, and horrified protests, Raymond ordered his staff out of the room. When he was alone, he walked over to a hidden panel next to his bed to key in a series of numbers[3]. The correct sequence[4] opened a secret side room holding his weapon control system. Stepping up to the machine, Raymond scanned his retina and fingertips, inserted a blood sample, typed in the target’s coordinates that he’d looked up while stopped at a red light during his drive to the White House, selected his weapon of choice, flipped open the safety glass, turned the first switch, the second, the third, pulled the final switch, pressed the now brightly lit “Launch” button, and finished.

* * *

Thirty years later, an aged President Raymond Clock, the only human still keeping track of time, sat alone in his office. Saddled with his violent raison d’être and excommunicated from happiness, he slogged on, year after year, implementing policies and following his grand scheme to fix his species. He did this without experiencing a single moment that bore any resemblance to joy. This effort hollowed out his soul and left him empty, a policy-enforcing automaton obeying an externally programmed mandate. He performed his duty by continuing to exist.

Following the Funchal Incident[5], Raymond experienced a falling out with his best friend and compatriot, Asher Sen-Rose, due to Raymond’s increased proclivity for expressing his violence in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles and drones, which soon became the UHC’s standard response to any trouble or challenge. Feeling increasingly separated from his fellow man, the President rarely left the confines of the White House, preferring either solitude or the company of a dedicated group of toadies he called his staff. He spent the preponderance of his hours in the giant media room he’d built adjacent to his bedroom containing over two-hundred screens, each programmed to display current news reports from around the globe, high-definition satellite imagery monitoring potential hotbeds of anti-UHC activity, or various situational comedies chattering away vapidly in every language. Raymond whiled away his days issuing presidential decrees based on the information he gleaned from these screens.

It had been thirty years since Raymond’s mistake, and not a moment had passed in which the memory did not threaten to break through his carefully entrenched mental barricades. He was a shell, existing because he knew he must, existing because he knew he was the only one who could accomplish anything that needed to be accomplished, the only one who could put humanity on the right course before his inevitable demise. No scientist, not even the great Chandra Sen-Rose, had discovered what made Raymond different, why he alone possessed the ability to inflict violence. So he’d continued living and ruling because this was his task and his burden, bequeathed to him by forces he didn’t believe in but felt obligated to heed.

Raymond’s empire had its faults, but it was a better place than the world prior to his extended tenure as humanity’s last traditional sovereign. His education initiatives had produced a highly educated and, more importantly, a highly-equitably educated population, helping to balance the historical inequalities humanity had once felt comfortable hosting.

Even with a nominally educated population, however, Raymond continued to feel frustrated with the collective choices his brothers and sisters made when left to their own devices. Despite Asher’s original hypothesis, selflessness was not derived from the acquisition of knowledge, but rather the result of a much more complicated and holistic process. Though Raymond had shifted his policies accordingly, teaching altruism and saturating his society with an incessant mantra stressing the essentiality of intelligent collective action, his newly educated population was more skeptical towards this type of subliminal propaganda than previously undereducated generations and seemed to resist his ideas merely out of principle. Anti-altruism riots became more common as Raymond stepped up his culture shaping campaigns. He met this dissent progressively by slowly increasing the number of people his rocket-propelled cure-alls touched each time a riot erupted.

With an exponentially expanding population and indestructible human body, space exploration, expansion, and colonization had become a crucial central focus for the human species. Even without overpopulation, humanity’s ravenous appetite for natural resources was quickly draining its home planet of valuable materials.

One of Raymond’s campaigns to promote intelligent collective decision-making was focused on raising public awareness about the looming resource crises. When this proved entirely ineffective, he was forced to impose international rationing. Consolidating and centrally stockpiling the Earth’s remaining raw-materials, Raymond carefully monitored and limited their use. These resources would be required to build space-crafts capable of ferrying humanity in large numbers to new, potentially-habitable planets.

Raymond knew he must complete the task of expanding humanity’s reach into the universe before his eventual death. Once he, the sole safeguard of human responsibility, was gone, all would be lost and the fate of his species would be too terrible to imagine.

Even with this threat rapping at the door, an incredibly sophisticated black-market sprang up to cleverly smuggle desired goods to an intelligent population demanding the right to self-defined comfort. For each ring Raymond destroyed, three more took its place, like an infuriating hydra mocking his impotence. And so the globe’s reserves dwindled at an ever-more alarming rate.

Over the last five years, with resources at critical lows and humanity’s incredible growth outpacing global infrastructure, power-outages and regressions in technological capabilities became increasingly common. The problems were first seen on the fringes of society, with power-grids shutting down for a few hours. But as the situation worsened the shutdowns lasted longer, covered a larger area, and impacted more centrally located power-grids. It was now not uncommon for entire cities to go dark for days at a time.

Raymond was observing humanity on two-hundred flickering illuminations and absent-mindedly slicing pieces off of an apple using a beautiful, hand-crafted paring knife with a blackened handle. He was sitting comfortably in his custom-made, maneuverable chair constructed from 200-year old Russian reindeer hide, the only piece of furniture in the dark room, twisting his head this way then that, watching. On one display a man was receiving a prize for displaying previously unheard of feats of athletic prowess in the 20th annual no-chute international skydiving competition. Another was playing an advertisement to sign-up as a settler for a proposed expeditionary colony on the moon Europa[6], one of Dr. Sen-Rose’s many projects. On another some UHC propaganda promoting the value of thinking of your neighbor’s needs before your own. Around and around Raymond looked, scanning each display with the same glazed expression bordering on indifference he’d worn for years.

The screens all guttered in unison, causing Raymond’s mind to briefly stir from its malaise. His eyes shifted to the screen directly in front of him and landed on an English-language news station reporting on the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Shrine of Madeira. The reporter, in full Hazmat, was describing the history of the holy island and the pilgrims who journeyed from all over the world to participate in strange rituals and pay tribute to Death as the spirits of the mystical shrine sapped their strength and they passed out of life with joy in their hearts. A science correspondent took over to explain the half-life of Americium-241. Suddenly, the display went dark. Raymond found himself sitting in a lightless room. Seconds later, when the red-hued emergency power lamps switched on, Raymond was staring at a reflection.

It seemed as if years had passed since Raymond had last seen his own likeness. Regarding himself now in the harsh, ruby light, he saw he looked haggard and worn, a man done-in by his ever-defeating reality.

His noble vision of humanity ascendant was a species-wide delusion dreamt up by an animal enchanted with its own unique ability to perceive and create. Raymond smiled at the idea, a smile bred from the painful absurdity of long-suppression. After decades of abstaining from reflection to fend off the doubts besieging the ramparts of his self-awareness, this moment of stillness and clarity hit his consciousness like a great wave, sweeping away the lattice of his grotesque bulwark. The absurdity and futility of his supposed obligation was revealed to him. A curtain lifted and he found the theater empty. The seats were unoccupied and Raymond saw himself standing alone, performing for no one but himself.

Here was reality staring back at him, the lines crossing his face etching a reminder of the energy he’d exerted. But what change had he wrought in the nature of his species? What permanent good had he done for the future of humanity? The answer his mind returned was Nico sitting before him in his own sheets, bathed in sunlight on their first morning together, an image he’d strained to censor for decades. Yet now here she was again, as real as she’d ever been, smiling back at him through time and space.

Why did his mind answer his questions with his prohibitions? Loving Nico was never his goal, only a compartmentalized section of his life reserved for moments he wasn’t busy with his real work. But when he’d killed her, he’d lost his passion. Perhaps even his capacity[7].

Understanding of his full failure came crashing down upon him as if Poseidon himself, after winning his bet with Athena, had summoned his full strength to wipe away Raymond’s grand delusions and drag his tower of lies beneath the waves. Having only ever paid lip-service to love while undermining its existence and worth at every turn, Raymond had failed to grasp the fundamental purpose and value of human life. His only chance to fully comprehend had been destroyed by his own hand thirty years ago, and now his vision was clouded by nihilism, misunderstanding his species and himself out of empirical ignorance. As he viewed humanity absent the light of love and empathy, he saw a replicating virus inflicting trauma on everything it touches. And thus Raymond Clock finally came to know the full extent of his hatred for his species.

The power surged back through the room as the red-lights blinked off and his television screens blinked back on. Back to life jumped the whole of his civilization spread out in front of him in all its glory, failure, happiness, and despair. The summation of this inanity coursed through him like an electric charge, filling him with physical disgust and rage. In a world where each organism had the ability and obligation to make its own choice, how dare these sentient creatures make the wrong one. His rage-filled mind was tired of their excuses and weaknesses. He determined they must face the consequences of their collective wrongdoing.

Perhaps this was his purpose, his final revelation at the apex of his ego’s self-realization. By destroying love when he destroyed Nico, he’d freed himself to see his most rational action. Why else anoint a human being devoid of love and happiness and gorged on hatred the sole arbiter of violence? He was the savior humanity deserved.

Filled with religious zeal, his breast burning and heaving, Raymond rose and walked through the door leading to his adjacent bedroom. Once inside, he strode over to the key panel controlling the well-worn global weapons system and punched in the now-memorized code. Through an increasingly muddled fog obscuring his mind, Raymond worked in a trance-like state to maneuver the levers and select the entire UHC arsenal as his weapon of choice. He had to be sure not a single member of his species survived his apocalypse. The final dial was turned and the “Launch” button was lit, glowing bright-red as it had so many times before, ready to execute Raymond’s last order.

As his hand raised, trembling, poised to end humanity’s existence, a memory of Nico was summoned from the depths of his now unguarded mind. She was sitting across from him in a familiar café full of the intense determination and vigor that’d enchanted him so completely in their first moments together. She was saying something to him he couldn’t quite make out, a whisper; a faint thought that slipped away even as it was spoken. He leaned closer and begged her to speak up. Her condescending smile stopped his heart as she looked him in the eyes and stated:

“The reality humanity created is the reality it deserves to live in, Raymond.”

The vision faded and Raymond was once again staring at a button and a possibility. Imagining Nico as an observer, Raymond stabbed inward with the paring knife he still held and twisted to make sure it was successful in its work. When he was certain, he extracted the blade and dropped it to his side. He began to laugh as he sank to the floor.

His laughter stopped abruptly when he noticed that no blood was pouring forth from where his knife had not penetrated his chest. Once again he took the knife and stabbed himself, then again, then once more. Each time his instrument had the same effect. Processing this new information took his mind a moment, but the conclusion it eventually reached was undeniable. The horror of his fate swept through him and his body wilted, splayed next to the panel with the still-glowing button as his Nico-shade continued to observe him, now stifling her laughter at his ineptitude and misfortune.

He heard her laughter and his anger flared. His hand slammed onto the glowing button. Nothing happened immediately other than regret.

Soon, the shockwave from the nuclear explosion nearest the White House threw him to the ground as it disintegrated the structure around him. He saw multiple blasts on the now-visible horizon, their deadly gaseous structures rising to the heavens together in exultation of their own opulent atomic violence. His body felt nothing as he was thrown for dozens yards each time he was hit. Eventually the apocalypse ended and Raymond lay motionless in a pile of filthy mud and debris where he’d been deposited by the last wave.

Hours passed before Raymond began to feel ridiculous and worried someone might come along and recognize him. He stood up in the mire, hesitantly, understanding that wallowing in his defeat would get him nowhere. He worried for the future of his species, but brushed these thoughts aside as he realized it was no longer his concern. This, and the memory of Dr. DeMasters, lightened his burden considerably as he took the hand of the smiling phantom standing before him and left the filth behind.

With the knowledge that he no longer had to be Raymond Clock, Raymond felt better than he had in ages. As he strolled down the levelled streets of DC hand-in-hand with his imagination’s grotesque projection of Nico Leftiè, Raymond observed many of the same qualities in the air and light he’d so enjoyed while walking to meet her at Busboys. So much was similar, in fact, that it truly felt as if nothing in the universe had changed at all.

[1] Lots and lots of money.

[2] Now kept and maintained by private airline companies for insurance reasons.

[3] 1837482923740189237656852183172645823726871623000315

[4] Delayed by several frustrating and incorrect attempts, Raymond remembered he’d forgotten the code and crawled around his room looking for the scrap of paper on which he’d written the number series he’d known he was going to forget. This fault in his memory was something he was pleased with himself for admitting and taking proper precautions for. The projected scenario was currently playing out in the exact manner he’d predicted over a year ago and the satisfactory validation of his foresight was marred only slightly by the fact that he’d forgotten exactly in which part of the rug he’d cut a small, removable triangle to hide the code.

[5] Also known as the Funchal Miracle. The word choice spoke volumes about the speaker’s faith in Death.

[6] After years of delays, scrounging for resources, and frustrations, Chandra believed she’d put together a workable plan to send humanity to a new frontier. This belief proved false, however, when the last bit of rocket fuel needed for the expedition was stolen and used in a hydro-craft drag-race across the Pacific Ocean. The winner of the competition was Hambleton Chillersby, of the Upper East Side Chillersbys, who clocked in at a record 8:52:33. Spectators claimed they’d never seen a hydro-craft drag-race like it.

[7] Raymond had been celibate since Nico’s death. He claimed to any concerned parties who asked that he couldn’t trust anyone’s interest in him nor could get trust himself to love anyone else without unintentionally misusing his power to manipulate them.

The Pile – Chapter Sixteen

It was summer again and running the world was proceeding swimmingly for practically all parties involved. After seeing the United States fall to Raymond’s authority in just one hour, the remaining nations of the world capitulated in 45 minutes[1]. After an intense debate as to the name for this new global society[2], the group moved ahead with “The Unified Human Confederation[3]” (UHC).  Every idea Asher and Raymond concocted was implemented with shockingly positive results. Along with a progressive tax ranging from 10-90% and capping total income at $1 million a year, the new government abolished every standing army, redirected defense budgets into automation, healthcare[4], shelter, a universal basic income, and education for the global population. The remainder of their immense budget surplus was funneled into massive creative endowments[5] and scientific initiatives[6]. Political commentators around the world, though initially confused by their ability to say whatever they wanted about their new dictatorship, soon came out harshly against the new measures, particularly the new salary caps and tax rates that dramatically affected their own salaries and bottom lines of their parent companies. Within six months, however, the doom-and-gloom jockeys were silenced by reality and the globe entered a time of peace and prosperity unknown throughout the whole of human history. There was little the new ruling cadre felt they couldn’t accomplish.

Asher and Raymond’s long term goal was to pump humanity so full of education and knowledge that average self-awareness, a figure neither had particularly respected at any point in their lives, would rise to the point where collectively-beneficial group decision-making was possible. After graduating from their now-compulsory college experience, citizens were required to pass a minimum of 1 class every semester indefinitely[7]. Failure to do so would result in stiff penalties and a loss of citizenship privileges. Using the strategy of mandatory lifelong learning and a massive worldwide investment in educational infrastructure, Asher and Raymond believed they could accomplish their goal of crafting a responsible and well-informed civilization in less than twenty-years.

This new utopia was mirrored in their romantic relationships. While Nico and Raymond happily travelled the world together to enforce Pax-Clock, as papers were calling the new era, Chandra and Asher were happily making their final preparations for the birth, or at least test-tube removal, of their first child. The couple purchased a modest home in a relatively unscarred portion of Foggy Bottom that provided quick access to the White House. Asher, during his diminishingly attended work hours with Raymond, passed his days strolling the halls of the White House with a lightness of spirit that infected everyone he met.

Never did a man have so many reasons to celebrate his own life as Raymond Clock. Nico, his adoring Nico, was a leader and his equal, guiding global artistic initiatives and development with competence, grace, and dignity. She was unimpeachable as a romantic partner and co-shepherd of mankind.

Every initiative Raymond imposed on his citizens seemed to work better than he’d ever dreamed, and each new policy measure resulted in significant and real improvements in the condition of the world. Raymond’s dreams and goals were realized each day he continued to exist.

The overabundance of positive news served to blind the young world rulers from the unpleasant blowback simmering below the surface of their new society. With the public campaign touting knowledge and education as the new coin of the realm, those who actively chose non-participation in the mandatory acquisition of information became social pariahs. These low-information humans, or lofos in the new slang, obstinately refused the changes levied on them, which consequently cost them citizenship privileges and social status. Bureaucratically driven from their homes and lives, lofo shanty-towns sprang up in poorly chosen sites[8] around the world. These communities soon became plagued with snake-oil salesmen as the residents were suspicious of any official program, but susceptible to gut-based charm and the well-advertised crazes[9]. While generally a hapless and harmless people, lack of proper sex education[10] meant the concentrated lofo population bred at an alarming, if accidental, rate.

This minor negative was easy to ignore during the heady days of the early UHC. The positive statistics in every measure of peace, happiness, and economic equitability were more than enough to keep Raymond and his compatriots satisfied. And with the upcoming extraction of Lucius Sen-Rose, Chandra and Asher’s child, there were significant personal distractions preventing the micro-governing[11] humanity required.

Lucius’s planned removal occurred on a humid early-July afternoon. Compared to traditional birthing events, Lucius Sen-Rose’s entrance into the world was a decidedly tidy affair. They snipped off some tubes and patted the new human dry. The whole ordeal was over in five minutes. Nico and Raymond, who were in attendance in the now-famous[12] Alexandrian safe house’s basement, congratulated the euphoric new parents.

“He’s a perfect little baby!” Nico enthused.

“He should be. We were very careful to maximize the expression of every positive allele Asher and I had to contribute,” Chandra replied, glowing with pride over her creation.

“It shows!” Raymond laughed. “So now that Lucius has made his debut, I suppose you’re both going to be a bit too busy as full-time parents to help run things?”

“Please, let’s not talk about running the world for once.” Nico attempted.

“Oh, no that’s fine. That’s reasonable,” Asher responded, “We can’t be selfish, however Chandra and I do need some time to tinker with parenting methods. We created a genetically superior kid so we better not mess up the nurture side of the house or else he’s liable to become like a master criminal or something. Besides, our 30-year governing plan is pretty well mapped out already; projected tax revenue and budgeting is calculated and allocated, population expansion is accounted for with the space exploration program, and our education initiatives are moving along nicely. Any major flare ups I’m sure you can handle on your own.”

“You sure about that?” laughed Nico.

“I’m sure as long as you’re there with him”

“Thanks guys. The President of The Unified Human Confederation appreciates your confidence. Now if you’ll excuse me, some of us have a planet to run.”

Chandra corrected him distractedly while coddling and doting on Lucius, “The more accurate statement would be species. As soon as the space settlement initiative launches you’re going to have more than one planet to worry about.”

“Come on, just stay for a bit Raymond, we’re having Indian!” Asher offered.

“I’ve never once turned down a dosa and I won’t start now.”

One of Raymond’s ten phones rang.

“Hello? Oh? Bermuda? But we just, alright. Yes, alright. I’ll be right there” Raymond dropped the device and made his apologies, “I’m sorry all, apparently there’s some sort of tax evasion uprising in Bermuda. Congratulations again! No, no, Nico. Stay here! I don’t want taxholes[13] to spoil the day for all of us.”

Nico, who’d begun to move towards the stairway to leave with Raymond, stopped and returned to hover over the new child with Chandra and Asher, “Thanks, Mr. President. I love you! Have a nice flight and good luck with the taxes!”

Raymond’s early exits from events involving the now expanded Sen-Rose family became a recurring theme over the next few months, with the harried UHC President excusing himself to deal with pressing global issues such as resettling thousands of displaced and irascible lofos due to massive space-heater-sparked wildfires in the Sierra Nevada Forest, brokering an agreement between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority to end mass settler sit-ins[14], or investigating reports of a vague new terrorist threat from a group calling itself HFTKETEWHKALFOEL,WGRAAFOEFWKWTWDASBQ[15], or HFFE, Humans Fighting For Earth. Because he needed to fix each situation personally, refusing to use inexact drone-based extensions of his will, Raymond often found himself alone on long trips to whatever hotspot required his immediate attention while Nico was occupied with her art council and the Sen-Rose family learned about itself. The strain of his obligations and constant traveling began to take their toll.

In order to put the world to rights, unbeknownst to a distracted Asher and hidden from Nico, Raymond had recently moved beyond punching people in the nose. Never cruel and always apologetic, he’d come to accept his role as the arbiter of a necessary and precise violence. As this was his singular capability, Raymond considered it his singular obligation to perform his appropriately violent duties to keep his species in line. He typically expressed his limited violence on prominent community leaders who stood opposed to the changes the UHC administration implemented. As this method began to trickle through resistance channels and the idea gained traction that President Clock would never actually kill another human being, movements were emboldened and the young administration found itself in need of a new strategy.

Before considering any new methods to enforce policy, Raymond ensured the controls for the entirety of the world’s nuclear and missile arsenal was consolidated within a private room to which only he knew the key code. Though these weapons were ineffective in the hands of anyone else, Raymond had to be sure his ability to threaten and execute violence remained an absolute and unquestionable monopoly. While mass casualties were exclusively his domain, he reasoned the threat of mass material destruction was still intimidating enough to make these powerful weapons a liability if used inappropriately. Therefore unilateral consolidation and control seemed Raymond’s only option. Only he could be trusted to understand the definition of an appropriate use of force.

He began formulating a technique to permanently enforce UHC policies a few months after the birth of Lucius while in Copenhagen responding to a group of radical anti-UHC lofos who’d burned down a college library.

As was his custom, upon landing at his destination Raymond ignored the pleas of his entourage and immediately made his way to the site of the destroyed building. The scene was infuriating; the institute of learning had been reduced to smoldering ruins. And for what? So these lofo fools could make a point about opposing his education reforms? Standing amidst the charred rubble, Raymond, contemplating the actions he must take to put a stop to this anti-knowledge movement before it gained any traction, noticed how alone he felt among the carcass of the former archive. Not a soul was moving within the square block on which the prestigious building had once stood. Curious as to the whereabouts of his staff and security, though not particularly concerned, Raymond pulled out one of his phones to call an assistant. The moment he put the device to his ear, the President heard a shout emanate from one of the buildings overlooking the rubble.

“He’s there! Now!”

A deafening boom met the order, quickly followed by what felt like a monumental earthquake and the disappearance of the ground beneath Raymond’s feet. Down nearly three-hundred meters he fell as the Earth swallowed him whole and sealed him in. Seconds later Raymond was entombed beneath thousands of tons of soil, barely able to move even his limbs within his dirt prison.

He was highly perturbed by his new situation; perhaps even slightly more than highly perturbed. In fact, Raymond was seething, angrier than he’d been in his entire life. Here he was, trying to fix the world, and now he was stuck underground having been blown up and buried by what he could only assume was a group of anti-UHC terrorists. Didn’t anyone understand what he was trying to do? Raymond’s brain furiously hurled these thoughts against the silent darkness of his restricted space.

Time crept by and nothing changed. As much as Raymond wriggled and writhed, he couldn’t manage to dislodge even the smallest bit of the compacted soil enclosing his body, which might have allowed at least one of his appendages to make a go of digging to freedom. Repeated attempts and repetitions of the repeated attempts proved fruitless. The more his struggles solidified his knowledge he was trapped, the more a cold, sick feeling of fear and hopelessness began to seep into his mind. Where was his staff? How long could he possibly survive like this? Hadn’t Chandra said he was just a normal human? Did the human origin of his earthen prison insulate him from the violence of suffocation and starvation?  Raymond had no answers to the questions his brain desperately scrambled to solve in the oppressive blackness of his subterranean confinement.

Time continued and nothing changed except Raymond’s anxiety. His mind slowly lost all higher functions as it was overwhelmed with a chemical cocktail usually reserved for animals running away from large predators. He couldn’t move and sleep came and went without notice. He ached from lack of nutrition, but his body didn’t wither. The alarms in his brain continued to ring, demanding immediate and decisive action. However as no action was possible, the only effect was an increasing paralysis of his rational thoughts. His panic mounted until it reached a peak where it remained both sustained and useless. Raymond’s mind was on fire with fear, but his body couldn’t react, so he remained still and stuck and blazing with distress. Finally, after what might easily have been days’ worth of hyperactive terror, his mind’s supply of his chemically driven horror seemed to be exhausted. He’d reached the heights of mortal fear and nothing had changed. He felt the absurdity of his extreme emotions shame him into a calm and embarrassed self-awareness.

Time swept by and Raymond was pacified. He now had the time and cognitive power to focus his thoughts. He’d been abandoned by everyone, his staff, his friends, even Nico. Everyone. No…not Nico, not Asher. They couldn’t! Or wouldn’t…and yet here he was, alone and trapped and helpless. He’d spared no ounce of his own energy to help every possible person. But where was his backup? Where was his rescue? How long had it been? Minutes? Hours? Days? Weeks? How had no one come for him? They’d abandoned him, all of them. Why had he ever believed he could rely on anyone else? He was the only one who understood an individual’s absolute obligation to humanity; a commitment he could never abandon. It was what he was born to do, and he was alone up on his mountaintop. Or in this case down in his dirt pile. But his bitterness only reached as far as his skin where it was promptly suffocated and kept concealed. He felt petty and small and alone as the depth of his isolation pressed in on him on all sides.

Time passed Raymond with no change in his mind or his surroundings. He’d abandoned thought and hope. All that was left to him was continued existence.

Sometime later, a far off rumble slightly shifted Raymond’s familiar dirt. Suddenly everything felt different. The lumps were in different spots and the familiar intimacy of his soil now felt intensely alien. He momentarily longed for his former position before a startling thought crashed through the morass that’d filled the chambers of his mind: could he move an appendage in the shifted loam? Could he possibly? Nothing seemed atrophied or withered, he supposed the human violence associated with this burying had seen to the preservation of his body, so…perhaps he could move!?

Hope flared within his chest once more, a wild hope, a mad hope! He could save himself! He could do it! Things were different now! He could feel the foreign lumps as proof! So he tried his right arm. No, not the right arm, that didn’t work at all. However there were still three more limbs! Now the left. Well, maybe not the left either, but his legs were still untried, surely his legs! At least one! So the right leg was attempted with haste and desperation. No, that didn’t work either. Now the left leg was the only one remaining. Nothing would be so cruel, oh gods! This had to work! This had to! He couldn’t possibly bear the suffering of his dashed hope. There must be some benevolent force in the universe and this, his last hope, it must work! He tried. And nothing. Everything was exactly as it had been before, only the soil had shifted slightly. More time passed as Raymond’s brief hope died in the dark and his mind sank back within.

Time kept up its indefatigable march for the trapped man.

Later, another rumble and another shift in soil. Raymond barely noticed his hope approach as it demanded entrance outside the impregnable fortress of his shuttered brain. But animal instinct forced itself to the fore and his body tried its limbs. And…and look! Look at this now! His right arm, his left arm! And even his left leg! Three out of four! They could all move! And yes! Yes they could scratch at the dirt as well! And now he had made a slightly larger hole for his left hand! He could even pull it back a bit for the first time in…how long? How impossibly long?

Raymond scratched and scraped and now both arms were together. And then both his legs were moving freely. He clawed at the dirt, unaware of the pain he was inflicting on himself, only cognizant he was moving up. He ascended; always towards his head and away from where the dirt was pulled by gravity. Centimeter by centimeter he worked, terrified any rest would find him trapped once more. Eventually he collapsed, waking an indeterminate time later in an unnecessary panic. But it was not his nightmare and his digging could continue. He dug and he slept and dug some more, then slept, and then dug.

The ground reverberated once more, this time accompanied by a loud booming noise that seemed to come from everywhere. Raymond’s heart leapt! Perhaps he was not abandoned after-all! How foolish he’d been to doubt his companions. He didn’t deserve their friendship. His effort was redoubled as he scrabbled towards the noise, a feeling of fevered joy gathering strength within him. Only stopping now when absolute exhaustion prevented his limbs from moving, Raymond knew he was close. So incredibly close.

And then, voices. Shouts and screams and yells emanating from everywhere above him. Many minor booming noises, explosions it sounded like, and then he could hear running.  Soon there wasn’t only dirt surrounding his hand, but also air and broken rocks. Raymond audibly gasped and in doing so breathed in a great deal more mud than usual. He coughed and spluttered for five minutes. When he regained control he scraped away the final layer of dirt and broken gravel and whatever else might be keeping him from breaking through to the surface. His head emerged and he was hit in the face by a small, round rock that then bounced onto the soil in front of him. More than three but less than five seconds later, the small, round rock that had ricocheted off his face exploded, immediately displacing the remaining soil entrapping his body and sending his newly-freed corpse flying.

Raymond’s body landed a meter from the site of the explosion. Dazed and bewildered, he remained still and stared up at stars. A moment of peace seemed too much for the environment to bear as Raymond soon found himself being scooped-up by a giant earth-moving machine he’d failed to notice creeping up on his oblivious form. Lifted into the air along with a dislodged pile of the dirt he was resting on, Raymond tumbled over and over while attempting to extricate himself from the unwieldy bucket.  As the metal casing tilted upright, Raymond was jostled within by the accompanying dirt, which outweighed him several times over. He was in a giant cocktail mixer powered by the jerky motion of the machine. Just as his head was submerged under the heterogeneous mixture, his vision was illuminated by another explosion beneath him. Unlike the first, which had sent him flying, this explosion put him at ease by disabling the giant machine. Suspended four meters in the air, Raymond used the moment of abrupt stillness to drag his body over the side of the iron claw and, with the assistance of gravity, plunge back to the Earth.

On the ground even more disoriented than before, Raymond rolled onto his back to see another machine, similar in style to the first but dissimilar in purpose, dump a great load of soil directly onto his body. Encased in dirt once more but too tired and bewildered to bother with digging any further, Raymond fell asleep for the first time in ages.

Hours later, or some undisclosed and unknowable amount of time later, Raymond awoke feeling mildly less confused. The volume of noise surrounding him betrayed the closeness of his external environment and he was filled once more with clarity and purpose. Raymond broke through the relatively small mountain of dirt and resurfaced back into the night.

All around him he saw movement and commotion. There were hundreds of burned-out husks of giant digging machines, great craters in the earth, and everywhere fire and humans. Here a man was operating a machine tearing up deep chunks of earth. Then an explosion and the man abandoned the now burning machine to hop in another and continue his work. Elsewhere men who were hauling in new piles of dirt in an attempt to replace what the diggers had shifted had their own machines blown up in turn. The overall effect seemed to result in an embittered stalemate, with no side significantly adding to or subtracting from the overall quantity of soil in the hopelessly scarred and ruined square.

Raymond walked up to one of the diggers and introduced himself.

“Excuse me. I believe you might be finished. I’m Raymond Clock and I’m not trapped anymore.”

The man barely heard what Raymond said over the noise and explosions, so he ignored him and continued digging furiously.

Raymond, touched by the man’s commitment but exasperated with being ignored, grabbed him by the arm to get his attention and shouted in his ear, “I’m President Clock! I’m free!”

Startled by both the shout and the fact that Raymond’s iron grasp, strengthened through his lengthy self-extraction, kind of hurt, the man took a step backwards and finally took Raymond under consideration.

“You…wait you’re the President? But how? We’ve been at this for months and…”

“Months? Months???” Raymond questioned, taking a step back as if he’d been were struck by the man.

“Why, yes sir. This operation’s been underway since Mr. Rose and Ms. Leftiè found out where you were.”

“I…where are they now, Ms. Leftiè and Mr. Rose?”

“At the command center, right over there,” the man pointed to a burning tent that was being torn down and replaced with a new, non-burning tent.

“Thank you for all your help! I really appreciate it!” Raymond called back to the awestruck man who followed him in a daze as he strode across the battle of wills and over to a cluster of people struggling to wrangle flaming canvass.

“Break it down! Quickly! We need to get this structure up!” A familiar voice called from amidst the crowd.

Raymond’s eyes sought the face behind the voice. A moment later he was in front of Asher.

“Hi, Asher. I got out.”

“Move the! What? Raymond? Raymond! How in the hell? Raymond?” Asher stood agog at the grime-encrusted figure wearing more than a year’s worth of beard growth, “Where are your clothes?”

For the first time Raymond noted he was naked. His suit had deteriorated and been ripped to shreds in his climb to the surface. Fortunately the dirt was caked so thickly around his body that the casual observer could barely notice the President’s lack of clothes.

“Oh…I…well just one moment.” Raymond said abashedly as he beat out the fires consuming a bit of the tent canvass and wrapped the fragment around his least politically correct body parts.

“Now you look like a proper prophet,” Asher joked, collecting himself from his shock, “Poorly groomed and covered in shit.”

“Well you know how much I always enjoy looking the part,” Raymond smiled for the first time since his burial, “Where’s Nico?”

“Oh…umm well let’s see. What time is it?”

“It’s…I have no idea. Why would I know? I don’t even know what month it is. And why does the time matter?”

Asher grimaced, “Nico and I had a difference of opinion on how to get you out. I opted for this digging approach. It’s slow and those HFFE lofos are a pain, but I think we are, or were, turning the corner on them.”

“It doesn’t look like you’re turning any corners to me. How long have you been digging like this?”

“Something like…well, around eight or nine months I guess it’s been now. We organized and brought the equipment over as soon as we found out where you were. I admit I underestimated their organization and resolve, but they also underestimated how many people would volunteer to help get you out.”

“All these people are volunteers?” Raymond goggled, peering around at the hundreds of individuals battling valiantly to dig him out of his hole.

“They are! Doesn’t it renew your faith in humanity to watch them go at it?”

“Well…I suppose. I mean I did just spend a year buried underground…”

“Don’t be so ungrateful!” Asher scolded.

“Oh I’m not, I promise. It’s just…”

Raymond was interrupted by an increasingly loud whistling noise.

“What in the world?”

“There’s Nico, right on time.”

The bomb impacted within the ruined square, destroying every piece of digging equipment on both sides and sending the competing volunteers and lofos flying in all directions. When the smoke cleared a large crater of smoldering dirt was all that was left.

“Hey! It looks like Nico’s method works way better than yours!” Raymond prodded Asher.

“Looks that way, doesn’t it? We got three months into the dig and she was furiously agitated the whole time, demanding more volunteers and equipment and speed. She was ferocious, Raymond! Anyways, against my advice she decided to go another route. And so she restarted her grandfather’s business of left-handed war equipment.”

“She what? But she despises that crap!” Raymond gasped.

“She does, but she despises it less than she loves you, my friend. So she dusted out the old mothballed factories and built a few bombers for herself along with increasingly powerful explosives to drop from above. The problem is…”

Asher was interrupted by a second whistling and second explosion, this time detonating in the middle of the road just outside the rubble, sending dirt and debris flying into the original crater, filling the space it had just cleared.

“The problem is there aren’t that many left-handed bombardiers, and these ‘smart-bombs’ aren’t as accurate as all that anyways. So while it most definitely makes some holes, mostly it just…”

Another whistling and another explosion, this one causing the old church nearly fifty meters down a side street to collapse in on itself.

“Mostly it just destroys everything around us. The mayor of Copenhagen is irate. We’ve had to pay for damages all over the city.”

“I see. Well…at least I know she loves me?”

“Raymond, Nico’s destroyed half of Copenhagen because she loves you. You better appreciate that and not screw it up this time.”

“Never! Our relationship is perfect!”

Asher was skeptical, “Yeah, well I’ve heard that before. I hope I’m wrong, but you remember Genevieve Desjardins? She was crazy about you too and you were using pretty similar language at the time.”

“Yes, of course I remember, but that didn’t work out because she went back to Paris.”

“Alessandra Ribeiro?”

“Yes, I know.”

“Juliet Montgomery?”

“Yes, I know Asher.”

“Loveless Cartier-Montague?”

“Asher! I get it. Alright, but they all left me, just in case you forgot.”

“Bullshit, Raymond. They did leave you, but only after you made it absolutely impossible for anyone to stay with you. You overthought every detail of everything and…”

“Look, it’s different. I’m a different person. I’m older and I’ve got myself together mentally. I’ve got a handle on my life now.” Raymond insisted as he stood bedraggled and wild with his unkempt beard, covered from head to foot in muck from the depths of Copenhagen and draped in a seared corner of Asher’s tent.

Asher couldn’t help but smile, “Alright, anyways we’ll see. Enough of my nagging for now, we should probably do something about stopping this whole mess,” he said motioning to the still-clashing diggers and fillers, “Shouldn’t we?”

“I suppose so. And can you get Nico down here? But don’t tell her why! I want to surprise her. In the meantime, do you have a razor, a shower, and some clothes?”

Raymond was whisked away to Asher’s hotel, one of the few structures that’d not been impacted by the battle to unbury the President, where he could rid himself of the vestigial remains of his unpleasant year. As Raymond was preparing to reengage with his life, Asher passed word among the volunteer digging corps that the operation was shutting down and the area was to be left to the still-filling lofos. When questioned, Asher could only smile and promise the confused workers they would understand soon.

As the crowd disbursed, Asher’s phone rang with a call from Chandra, who’d stayed behind in DC to take care of Lucius and continue running her lab. She was overjoyed to hear the news of Raymond’s self-extraction, primarily as it allowed Asher to come home. Asking how Nico was taking the news, she reproached Asher for not immediately informing Raymond’s frantic significant other.

“She has suffered so much these months. Their relationship so recently stabilized and he was suddenly torn away from her for a year. Who knows what his brain convinced him of alone down there?”

“He seemed fine to me. The same old Raymond as always.” Asher brushed off her concerns, “Whatever issues he might have, Nico and I are perfectly capable of handling them.”

“Does he know yet? Did you tell him what’s been going on?”

“…No. I didn’t want to rush things. We’re going to have to do it in the right way so he doesn’t do anything rash. Let him at least clean himself off and have a few days of normalcy with Nico before we break it to him.”

“Do you honestly expect Raymond Clock to not check the news the first chance he gets? Did you send him to your hotel alone?”

“Well I thought…oh god! You’re right! I’ll call you back! I love you and Lucius!”

Asher called his driver to pick him up immediately and was soon racing to the hotel room where he could only pray Raymond had not yet turned on the television or picked up a newspaper. He attempted to dial Nico while in transit, but it went straight to voicemail. He left a frantic message explaining the situation and willed his vehicle to go faster, berating himself for his incompetence.

Finally arriving at the hotel, he rushed up to his suite only to find a pile of dirt and the charred tent canvass sitting in a heap on the bed. The television was on and showing dramatic scenes of the most recent school burned to the ground by HFFE forces.

Asher surveyed the scene and walked over to sit on the filthy bed.

“Well…shit.”

[1] Talking heads hailing from the former United States chalked-up the extra 15 minutes to American exceptionalism. Talking heads hailing from outside the former United States chalked-up the extra 15 minutes to American pigheadedness. Raymond chalked-up the extra 15 minutes to taking a wrong turn in the White House during his hostile takeover and ending up momentarily confused and delayed after a dramatic entrance into a West Wing broom closet.

[2] Raymond’s ten best ideas according to Raymond: 10. Humanistan 9. Sisyphium 8. The Raymondian Empire (though entirely a joke, it still deserves #8) 7. The Sapien Empire 6. Earth 2.0 5. The Democratic Republic of Humanistan (DRH) 4. Leftiè’s Luxury Civilization (LLC) (Nico was not amused) 3. A Pit-Stop In-Between Nothingness (APSIBN) (No one was amused, though Simon, a 19 year-old White House Intern who had just finished reading L’Étranger for his Philosophy 150 class, tacitly approved) 2. The Grotesque Global (By now no one was listening) 1. Humanistan (Raymond thought this idea was exceptionally clever (though he secretly liked the sound of Pax-Sapiana))

[3] Raymond initially rejected the inclusion of the word “Confederation” as it brought to his mind the horrors of the American Civil War and slavery. The rest of the group listened to his objection, considered his opinion, and, after an adequate period of respectful deliberation, told him he was stupid.

[4] Entirely a PR move as healthcare was frankly unnecessary, though many expectant parents continued to visit now-deserted hospitals during the appointed time of birth. Even without the accompanying pain, a living room floor decorated with placenta made for an untoward scene and an unpleasant post-delivery scrub for overworked housewives.

[5] The only requirement to qualify for an endowment was to present or mail a proposal to a panel of experts chaired by Nico. This panel swiftly earned the popular nickname “The Rubber-Stamp Council” for their penchant to approve over 99% of the projects crossing their desk. The figure would have been higher if Nico never left the room for bathroom breaks. During these opportunities the panel, knowing their broad-minded chairwoman would force a packet through were she present, would hurriedly deny a few of the worst ideas they’d surreptitiously slipped under their chairs.

[6] Chandra, given the budget of a large nation, swiftly assembled a crack team of top scientists and researchers in an unprecedented and extraordinarily well-financed probe into the depths of every scientific field known to mankind. Major new discoveries were a daily occurrence and by the end of the first quarter the team was ready to launch newly genetically engineered and specifically tailored humans into space aboard a moderately sub-light speed spacecraft to settle formerly inhospitable planets of the Milky Way Galaxy.

[7] This indefinite clause led to a dramatic surge in “black-market education” systems in which shady teachers of questionable qualifications hosted knock-off American Political Economy in the 21st Century lectures and classes on The Art of Zhooshing in dingy basement classrooms, handing out completion certificates for any unscrupulous scholar in need of a credit.

[8] Many of these shanty towns had the ill-luck of being built on fault lines, near volcanic activity, in tornado-alleys, on sandy cliffs, eroding beach heads, or any number of newly cheap parcels of land. With the emphasis on information, the real-estate market had seen a dramatic shift, with home-buyers taking things like sustainability, weather, climate, and frequency of natural disasters into account. Previously heavily occupied land now lay abandoned as increasingly informed citizens moved their homes and families to locations without a history of frequent wildfires or landslides. The lofo community took advantage of these incredible, once-in-a-lifetime, rock-bottom deals and moved in.

[9] One of the most influential of these super-diets was based on the work of Dr. Hubert Slovache, who’d become something of a prominent citizen within the prime Sierra Nevada Forest lofo reservation. The Dr. Slovache Diet held that the government had been lying about nutrition for years and phrases like, “An apple a day will keep the doctor away” had originated as propaganda to control the citizenry’s eating habits. Rather than eat the food promoted by “the authorities,” Dr. Slovache advocated a more holistic lifestyle based on whole-body wellness. His research pointed out the correlation between humanity’s ancestors leading happier and healthier lives and eschewing “modern” foods such as cooked meats, baked grains, or ripe vegetables. The diet advised eating food in its immediate form the moment you find it, with no unnatural human tampering. Hundreds of smarmily superior lofos lost pound after pound due to this revolutionary regimen and the parasites it frequently lodged in their dietary tract. That they only kept their lives due to NFVS was of minor consequence during bikini season.

[10] AKA “the Devil’s Tutelage”

[11] AKA babysitting

[12] As an officially certified CTSMSoV® holy® site, The House of the Revelation® had become a major stop on the Official CTSMSoV®  Capital City Pilgrimage Tour®.  The tour Included the ruins of Raymond’s former residence in Georgetown (now a frozen yogurt shop), the Thai restaurant where Raymond witnessed the first news reports on NFVS and miraculously fixed the establishment’s window (with Nico’s money), and the rebuilt New Anacostia Red Roof Inn located in the now charming and trendy district repopulated by trust-fund fueled ageing-hipsters-with-children looking for a nice, authentic place to move before it’s spoiled by trust-fund fueled ageing-hipsters-with-children. Money magazine ranked New Anacostia as, “One of the best places to live in The Country Formerly Known As The United States,” calling the former slum, “A miraculously transformed treasure.” Total Package Cost: $156.00 (price does not include meals).

[13] The new slur for a sect of radical anarchists who believed personal wellbeing was paramount and humanity should “eschew the false narrative construct of collective wellbeing.” The sect, popular on college campuses that specialized in educating students who struggled to manage the demands of their parents’ wealth, held that every being held the inalienable right to be viewed and treated by others in the way the being itself defined. Personal choices and expressions were sovereign decisions made by sovereign entities and held more value than law, which, according to practitioners, was an immoral construct imposing the will of the collective on the sovereign individual. Some members chose to express their sovereignty by creating vertically and horizontally integrated child labor-fueled supply chains. Others expressed themselves through lawsuits against telemarketing agents who deadworded their 20th pronoun incarnation, “snu-21” (e.g. I saw Becky the other day, and boy did snu-21 get faaaaaaaaaat.”). The group believed the primacy of the personal over the collective was absolute and considered themselves word warriors, manipulating language to bend reality to their indisputably correct will.

[14] In which Israeli settlers would break into the homes of Palestinian families, construct a make-shift home in their living room, and claim the land as theirs.

[15] According to some intelligence reports, the organization was merely a regrouped AFTKATAWHKALFOEL,WGRAAFOEFWKWTWDASBQ. These analysts held that the group had prudently replaced “Americans” and “America” with “Humans” and “Earth” in order to increase the pool from which to draw potential recruits. Another school of thought within the intelligence gathering community disagreed with this assessment and posited that HFFE was an entirely new organization, pointing to significant changes in the group’s structure, such as replacing the words “Americans” and “America” with “Humans and “Earth”. These analysts, knowing of Senator Stovall’s (R – OK) dislike for the ethnics, felt this was solid evidence that AFFA would never embrace the liberal, multicultural membership policies of HFFE.

The Pile – Chapter Fifteen

Chandra, Nico, and Asher were escorted into the Oval Office by a put-out White House minder. Once inside, they found Raymond, torn and stained in the last outfit they’d seen him in a few hours earlier, lounging on one of the office couches as casually as they’d ever witnessed Raymond lounge.

Nico, filled with both relief and anger, broke from the group and strode towards him shouting, “What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you tell us it was you ‘requesting our immediate presence at the White House’ at four in the morning? We were terrified when we heard what happened at Martha’s Vineyard. The reports are so confused and the press is frothing. They’re saying somehow it…it sank? We thought, or I thought…”

“I’m sorry,” Raymond opened his eyes, apologized, and stood to embrace her, “I didn’t think you’d worry too much about my safety and…well frankly I’ve been insanely busy since I got back into DC an hour ago.”

“So…you’re safe. And…in the Oval Office. And…where’s the President?” Asher inquired.

“I’m not entirely sure yet but I think I might be the President. Or, well I don’t know what to call it because clearly I wasn’t elected. But I thought calling it anything else might make my leadership feel unfamiliar, which would make everything harder. Even if I wasn’t elected, calling me President might be more comfortable for everyone. The powers of the office and appointment process are a bit different, but I figure if it’s the same word people might feel better about the whole thing. “

“Raymond, what are you talking about?” Nico asked, taking a seat on his couch.

“You can leave, if it’s alright by you,” Raymond dismissed the group’s escorts, who happily backed out of the room and closed the handsome wooden doors behind them. He turned back to his companions and spoke with no-little amount of embarrassment, “So I sort of took over the country I guess.”

“You just decided this? When?” Asher asked.

“Well…I was pretty sick of the whole thing, you know? Like, I went to Martha’s Vineyard and had this confrontation with a group of awful people who, I mean I understand they are scared of change and their psychology and all but, god, they were just so awful! But I was going to make peace. I was going to stand there and let them try to kill me as much as they wanted, but I was going to make peace no matter how hard it was. But then, before I could really even try, another group of equally awful people decided to blow everything up. So we all sunk, but none of us died and all of it was stupid and awful. I floated for a while on a plank from a broken table waiting to be rescued and all I could think about was how hard both sides were trying to get around not being able to use violence to do the same stupid and awful things they’ve always done. Those people are everyone else in the whole world, or at least it feels like they’re everyone else. Or, maybe just everyone else is complacent or tolerant and content to just let those groups of other people carry on in whatever way they want, with all their stupidity and awfulness. And so, basically what’s the point of trying to convince anyone of any better way?  No one knows any better way because there’s never been a better way and as long as those people are there and, even when they literally can’t even use violence, they still do everything in their power to blow up and sink and destroy everything.”

He was feverish; his words confused and repetitive with significantly less contrived elegance.

Nico began, “But, Raymond all we can do is try to convince…it may be an uphill battle, like Sisyphus, but…”

“I don’t want to be Sisyphus anymore! What no one is saying is while we’re feeling very righteous and noble and philosophical in our views while we try to educate and convince all these complacent, tolerant, and content people that there’s another way to live in this world other than having to put up with these stupid and awful people and letting them continue doing all the shit they’ve been doing for all of human history to make this planet full of horrors, what no one is saying is the horrors are happening right now. And those aren’t theories or philosophical debates or academic ideas, those are real people experiencing real suffering and being blown up and sunk and destroyed by awful people every single second, perpetuating our infinite cycles of violence. Balancing out there on the water trying to twist myself into a shape to keep as much of my body out of the cold as I could manage, I thought how silly it all was, and how silly and selfish and idiotic I’ve been. The second I found out I could put a stop to all this, why didn’t I? Because I hate violence? I’m a pacifist? Human existence is violence. Our essence, the core of our being, is constructed for and calibrated towards violence. We don’t know how to function without it. And by pretending my personal philosophy protects me from the sins of my fellow man, that somehow I, as a pacifist and human being who has not directly committed any violence, am not equally culpable in my species’ crimes; that’s the greatest lie I can tell myself. So I’m going to start using my violence, because humanity always uses violence in the end. But I’m going to use my violence exclusively to force humanity to see there’s a better way; a way to live peacefully. Even if that peace isn’t a choice, I will be the one who break our cycles.”

Raymond’s eyes were shining with the fervor of his convictions. The remainder of the group became increasingly tense as the flood of his ramblings washed over them.

Asher spoke first, “But, Raymond, how are we showing the way to peace through violence? This isn’t the way we’d discussed. There’s a path…a method to doing all this. And you know I was the first one to call for waking up and recognizing what needed to be done in reality as opposed to sitting around debating philosophy…but this…”

“Yes, I know you were. And I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you sooner. I was so caught up in my own self-righteous ideas. But now I see and so I act. And from here we can go any direction we choose.”

“No, we can’t Raymond,” Nico cut in, “Don’t you see that decisive action doesn’t automatically mean you’re doing the right thing? Taking action simply because you have the power at that moment doesn’t mean you’re making things better. We have no idea how your actions will shift the world. Humanity is too complicated and unpredictable for these sudden, unplanned jolts. I understand it’s frustrating and horrifying to see all that suffering and know you have the power to act and have an effect, and I’m sure it feels like the right thing to do. Once you act and see the immediate and instantly gratifying results of your actions, it’s so easy to feel satisfied, and maybe for the first time feel accomplished because you can observe these immediate macro level changes rather than the imperceptible micro-shifts we’d been working on before. But, this isn’t the way to do it. Taking these actions…we have to plan and consider and research and then decide. If not, we have no idea what road we’re taking humanity down. This instant gratification; is it any better than the actions of those ‘stupid and awful’ men? Why do you think they do what they do? And…why do you think I made those mistakes in Anacostia?”

The light in Raymond’s eyes diminished slightly as he looked around at his friends, “But…I feel like we’ve all been living in a fantasy world. Like some naïve paradise where we can fix humanity with soft solutions like education and technology and political reforms. I…I don’t know if I believe we can anymore. Maybe sometimes you have to kill people.”

Chandra entered the conversation, “You do not have to do anything. We can say killing is an expedient solution to an immediate problem, and we might even say in some scenarios killing is essential for self-preservation. There are humans with mental diseases or twisted philosophies or chemically-manipulated brains who will kill without a moment of hesitation. But to say we ever must kill is a falsehood. If we kill to accomplish a goal, let us say we killed to accomplish that specific goal, even if that goal is simple survival. Let us never delude ourselves into believing we do not have a choice.”

“That’s the same naïve logic!” Raymond cried, “Semantic discussions are well and good for academia, but when we’re dealing with real life it means nothing. Do we tell an invaded nation they should comfort themselves with the reality of their choices? As their cities are pillaged and women raped, as always happens during an invasion, should they remind themselves they kill to ‘accomplish a specific goal’ of stopping the pillaging and raping? It’s such a useless thought!”

Chandra responded calmly, “Raymond, you are saying it is useless to think. You are condemning our species to a descriptive state, one where we are never anything more than petty, selfish, rampaging beasts reacting to external stimuli with minimal internal control. Perhaps we have been such. Perhaps some of us still are. And perhaps some of us still are some of the time. But I believe you have lost sight of our nuances and potential. Action simulates clarity by removing nuance; decisiveness requires sharp contrasts. However when you speak of naïveté, I think perhaps it is the action-oriented who are naïve, even though their worldview makes them believe otherwise. The righteousness of certainty, particularly when it justifies the death of another human being, does wonders for the regard one holds for one’s own sophistication.”

Agreeing, Nico added, “And is it in you to think we’re nothing more than the beasts Chandra described? If we’re not capable of anything better, why try to improve the world for humanity at all? Don’t we deserve the world we create for ourselves? I know that you believe, despite what you’re saying, we have hope and there’s the potential within us to be better. Not just one person, one family, one tribe, or city, or state, or nation. Rather all of humanity is capable. That is the least naïve perspective I can imagine because it’s the hardest road to walk. We know how futile every action appears when compared against the grand sum of human suffering, but recognizing that and taking action anyway is the most important decision you can make. Perhaps you’re tired of being Sisyphus, and you think it’s naïve to hope for anything better as you push your boulder, but it’s just as naïve to believe there’s no hope. Eternity’s a long time. Why condemn yourself and humanity to hopelessness when neither you nor anyone else knows what will happen?”

Raymond sank back onto the couch and closed his eyes in deep contemplation. Minutes passed and the others began looking to one another in concern. Nico warily crept to Raymond’s side and placed her hand on his shoulder. Immediately his eyes snapped back open and he stood up, flustered and bewildered.

“What? What is…oh I’m sorry. I think I fell asleep. I’m so tired, I haven’t slept at all.”

“Raymond, did you hear what we said?”

“Yes of course, about eternity and all that. And, right. I get it. I suppose you’re all right and I was being a bit…imprudent with all this decisiveness and condemnation and hopelessness. But it sure feels like I’m doing the right thing, you know? It’s naïve to hope, less naïve to give up hope and assume all humans are base animals, and the least naïve to recognize you should probably give up hope but still try to make the world better anyways?”

“I don’t know whether we should keep talking about what is and isn’t naïve. It’s more a question of what type of world you want to live in and how we get there. If we gave it all up and became nihilists, I don’t know what we’d work on. We could always be wrong and blowing up the world is the best option after all,” Nico attempted levity, “Now why don’t you get some actual sleep and tomorrow you can tell us how you took over the United States in an hour.”

“I like that idea. Want to sleep with me in the President’s bed?”

“That sounds marvelous, though I hope they changed the sheets with the administration. Chandra, Asher, I’m sure there have to be other beds somewhere…”

Asher smiled, “We’ll manage. We should probably get back to the safe-house to make sure our test-tubed bundle-of-joy is alright. Call us tomorrow when Raymond’s had a decent rest and is feeling slightly less megalomaniacal…or send the Secret Service to pick us up, whichever is more convenient.”

The next afternoon found Nico walking into the President’s bedroom with a pair of lunch plates, waking Raymond from his refreshing slumber.

“I’m shocked at all the people still working like nothing’s happened!” Nico expressed as she made her way to the bed to sit beside Raymond and hand him lamb curry.

“Yeah, hardly anyone seemed too upset after I put out that I was doubling their salaries if they stayed on for a seamless transition.  Mmm, curry!” Raymond quickly consumed the plate’s contents, realizing only after finishing how he’d forgotten his manners, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m so rude…I just remembered all of a sudden that I hadn’t eaten since I left the safe-house…”

Nico smiled happily, pleased to see Raymond was comfortable enough around her to mistakenly drop his formal mannerisms every now and then, “Please, don’t be sorry! I’m happy to see you eat with such vigor.”

Raymond blushed, “I’m trying to be more relaxed, really! But I feel like trying to relax just turns into awkwardly fake relaxing, which makes me much less actually relaxed.”

“I know, I know. You can do whatever you want, fake relaxing or real relaxing, whichever makes you more comfortable.” She hesitated before adding, “Raymond, I’m really happy with us, with our relationship. I think we’re doing great.”

Raymond propped himself up in the large, luxurious bed and looked at Nico inquisitively.  “You mean our relationship is structured correctly? You enjoy its power dynamics, or…”

“I think we’ve achieved a self-perpetuating positive feedback loop of connections and relationship infrastructure, and I’m really in love with you.”

A cessation of all previous brain activity greeted this specific wave pattern of vibrations as they filtered through Raymond’s mind. According to his best guess as to his own state of affairs, he loved Nico as well. But he didn’t trust his best guess or any self-assessment of his own state of affairs, so offering forth an honest affirmation of love was tricky. He attempted to relate this in what he hoped was a timely manner after a new type of vulnerability was revealed by the woman sitting across from him on the President’s bed.

“I love you too, Nico,” he said.

“I know. And I know what it means for you to say that. And I know that your brain is analyzing what you just said, wondering if it’s completely accurate or whether you’re fooling yourself or lying to me or fooling yourself about fooling yourself or lying to me about lying to me. And that’s okay, because those thoughts are part of why I’m in love with you. You shine beyond your neurosis, however thick they are, and can make the choice to leave your confinement anytime. Keep talking to me when you feel overwhelmed and slowly build a reality for yourself where you learn how to lead your neurosis rather than the other way around.”

Raymond’s brain looked for a flaw or an escape or a trap. Why was she saying this to him?

“I understand how lost and battered by the world you feel. You rescued me from my cynicism and half-experienced life and I think I can, I really think I can, help reintroduce you to loving yourself without reservation. It’s terrifying, but let’s be terrified together!”

Before Raymond could react in the only way he knew how, a hurried knock rapped at their door.

“Yes, please come in!” Nico called.

A frightened looking White House staffer entered and skittered over to the side of their bed, “Umm, good afternoon sir, Mr. President? Mrs…President?”

“I’m not sure I’m going with “President” and we aren’t married. And even if we were I’d never be so chauvinistic as to suggest she abandon her identity and last name in favor of mine,” Raymond smiled kindly at the staffer and then at Nico, who rolled her eyes.

“Oh, well then…Sir? There’s an issue that requires your immediate attention. If it’s your prerogative to get dressed after you do so I will escort you to the Situation Room.”

“My pleasure. Could you also have someone call Asher Rose and Chandra Sen at our house in Alexandria and…or rather just send a car for him. Or call him and send a car, actually. Oh and I don’t have any clothes other than the tatters I came here in, do you have any spare shirts, pants, belts, ties, jackets, socks, and shoes?”

“The Preside…former President should have some clothes here…though he was quite a bit larger.”

“I’ll just have to make due I suppose. If you’ll excuse me, I’m naked under these blankets.”

Forty-five minutes later Raymond emerged wearing a dark blue suit three sizes too large and cinched up to his waste by a belt containing a roughly punctured hole miles away from its machine-made brethren.

The gathered aides stifled their laughter.

“I suppose this is the best I can do for now,” Raymond grinned, “Now let’s go check out the situation!”

As Nico fell in beside the group, one of the aides objected, “I’m sorry but ma’am, you do not have the security clearance to…”

“Oh rubbish!” Raymond said, laughing, “Nico Leftiè, by the authority granted by…whatever I am, I hereby dub thee Ms. Nico Leftiè, Really High Security Clearance Holder. There,” he continued, turning to the objecting aide, “Does that work?”

“Well…Mr. Presiden…Sir, We have protocols and…”

“You were part of a pretty bad government.” Raymond responded. He moved forward alone before remembering he didn’t know which way to go, “Now please show me where the Situation Room is so I can get to work.”

The cavalcade arrived at the highly secured briefing room to join a cluster of bewildered military generals and admirals as well as the heads of various important lettered departments and agencies.

“What’s up?” Raymond asked.

“Who are…where’s the President?” one of the men called out.

“Oh, you don’t know? Who knows?” Raymond asked, turning to the closest aide.

“We decided it would be best if you told people directly. But there are always leaks.”

“Oh yeah! That’s a really good idea! Alright then,” Raymond announced, “My name is Raymond Clock and if it’s alright with everyone, though probably also even if it’s not, though I really hope you will all hear me out and we can get through this turbulent period together, but I understand if some of you have moral qualms with the situation, which I would be more than happy to discuss anytime!. But…anyways, I’m the new leader or whatever of the United States of America.”

The highest ranking members of America’s defensive and offensive capabilities stood in stunned silence.

Another voice called from somewhere in the room, “Is this a joke? Where’s the President?”

“Well, I was hoping Asher Rose and Chandra Sen would join us so I didn’t have to repeat…ahh Hey Asher! Hi Chandra! Perfect timing! I hope you had a pleasant ride!” Raymond called to his friends as the slid into the back of the room in front of the highly-distressed minders from much earlier that morning.

“Raymond, why are we in the Situation Room? What’s going on? We had to force our way in.” Asher responded with an edge of annoyance.

“Damn it all, by the power vested in me I now name you both Cleared or whatever it is you need to be in here. Anyways, I was just starting to explain to all these lovely people how we got here. So,” he shifted his focus back to the whole group, “As you might have noticed, I’m not the previous President. In fact, I’m probably not even a President at all, though I’m still unsure on that point…”

“Just be the President, Raymond! Deal with semantics later!” Nico yelled at him.

“Fine, fine. Okay, I’m the new President, but obviously I wasn’t elected…”

“How did you get in here?! Where’s the Secret Service?” voices from the crowd interrupted him.

“Right!” Raymond shouted over them, “I’m getting there, hold your horses! So the thing is I’m the only human in the world not infected with NFVS.”

“That’s impossible! It’s not a disease, it’s a state of being!” came a response.

“Oh hey Chandra, look at that! I see we have another Believer in the crowd! Well, okay, state of being, or disease, or whatever it is, it doesn’t affect me at all. Which means I can still use violence.”

“Lies! Prove it! You’re lying!”

“I’ve been punching a lot of noses recently and don’t really want to punch any more, but if I have to punch another nose to prove my point, I will. So who wants their nose punched?”

The crowd was silent until a red-faced admiral volunteered, “I’ll do it!”

“Great! Please step over here, sir!”

“What? I didn’t say anything!” The admiral spluttered.

“Didn’t you just?” Raymond asked, “Didn’t everyone just hear him volunteer?”

“It’s the Secretary of the Army, he’s a ventriloquist on the side and does this stupid thing all the time,” the Secretary of the Air Force responded, “Dammit Bob, can’t you be serious for once?”

“Screw you, Ronald. You always were a god damned Blue Falcon.” the head of the CIA seemed to say in a deeper voice than anyone would’ve expected to emanate from her diminutive form.

“Alright, alright,” Raymond calmed the bestirred bureaucrats and officials, “If the Secretary of the Army wants to joke around, it looks like he’s the one who volunteers. Come on up here, Mr. Secretary.”

The crowd parted and a short, balding man wearing his heavily-medaled dress-blues was pushed forward.

“Aww come on guys! Fine, fine. Get it over with, I’ve done combatives.”

Raymond wound up and delivered a well-struck blow to the middle of the Secretary of the Army’s bulbous nose, causing the man to fall backward and yowl with pain.

“YEOWWCH!! Oh my god! That hurt!” he cried, “Does someone have a tissue?”

The room dropped into silence once more as someone handed a tissue to the stricken Secretary and Raymond continued, “Well that’s done. I had to do the same thing to the President when I got here and asked him to get out of town to prevent any confusion. I believe by now he should be back at his ranch in Texas starting his relaxing new retirement. His staff has been kind enough to stay on to make this transition as painless as possible. I’m happy to accept resignations, however I’m equally happy to keep things as they are and move forward. To help persuade you to say, I’d ask you to consider that we are now the only country in the world capable of violence. We will make an announcement to the citizens of America soon.”

At these words the eyes of every general, admiral, agency head, undersecretary, and aide gleamed with the light of true believers. Nico, Chandra, Asher, and Raymond smiled at one another knowing they’d won.

“Now what’s this urgent business we’re all here for?”

The Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a reedy old woman with an unauthorized purple patch over her left eye, an affectation no-one in the fifteen years since she’d lost her eye at the Battle of Iguazu Falls[1] had ever had the internal fortitude to tell her violated military regulations, stepped out of the crowd and handed Raymond a folder marked TOP SECRET.

Raymond saw the words and chuckled, “You really do that? Wow, that’s so stupid! I feel like I’m in a stupid movie.”

“Sir, Mr. President, this is the full report from Operation Atlantis, the operation to take down the AFFA cell operating out of Martha’s Vineyard. During the operation I regret to inform you…”

“I know what happened! I was there!” Raymond shouted with a sudden passion, “I saw the idiocy of the decision-making process of the previous administration. No more! We’re done!”

“But sir…the terrorists escaped. We must…”

“We must do nothing! Let them escape! What can they do other than bomb us every once and a while and annoy a lot of people?”

“That…that’s too much and unacceptable…with our new arsenal and firepower…”

“You mean MY firepower, right? General Masalajammer, I’m not going to go out and kill these men. We’ve got better things to do, like getting the rest of the world on board.”

This pronouncement led to mass confusion in the small room.

“We don’t need the rest of the world!”

“The Chinese will betray us first chance they get! You can never trust a Chinese, that’s what my dad always said!”

“The Russians will never play ball! Those Russkies are cold-blooded killers, that’s what my mom always said!”

“Screw the Danes! What did they ever do for anyone!? Never pet a Great Dane in heat! That’s what my step-uncle-twice-removed on my mother’s side always said!”

“STOP! Be quiet! All of you!” Raymond shouted, silencing the commotion, “I thought it would be a good idea to keep the old-hands close for your expertise, but clearly I was mistaken. How can any of you begin to conceive of the world we’re building? Get out! Get out of this city!”

“But sir, my pappy used to say the Moroccans need to be…”

“OUT!”

He kicked some and shoved others. He even punched a few extra noses just to make a point[2]. Eventually the room was emptied of the mewling mass of officials, leaving only Chandra, Nico, Asher, President Raymond and the loyal White House staffers.

“Well that soured rather quickly.” Asher joked, trying to cheer a fuming Raymond.

“I don’t know what I was thinking. They’re the people who got us here! I need to remember my Freire.”

Nico comforted him, “Don’t worry about it. It would have been nice to have them, but I understand why you’re so upset. They’re gone, we’re here. Let’s go set up this big announcement.”

Raymond looked up from his brooding, “I…yes. That’s a good idea. Let’s do that.”

“I couldn’t sleep when I got home so I typed up your speech. Give it a read and let me know what you think,” Asher beamed as he handed a pile of papers to Raymond, who took the pages slowly.

“What’s wrong?” Nico asked him.

“It’s really just us, isn’t it? We’re it? There’s no one else?”

Nico sighed, “No, it’s not just us, Raymond. There’re plenty of great and diverse people in the world, maybe not as specifically talented in what we’re doing right now as you or Chandra in science or Asher in…well everything, or even myself in… I don’t know, being rich and empathetic with my power?” Nico laughed and continued, “But they’re better in plenty of other ways. Or not better, because that doesn’t mean anything, just different and diverse and worthwhile for the trillion nuances that make them interesting people. This isn’t some Ayn Rand ‘we’re the titans of society’ thing. So get that out of your mind now. There ARE other people in the world Raymond, they’re just not taking into consideration the way you think they should be living. But take knowing me or Chandra or Asher as proof that if you’re lucky enough to already meet us in your short life span, there must be plenty more wonderful people out there, all over the world, billions of them, that you haven’t met. And they’re worth working hard for to fix this world. Not just the ones we like though, because the ‘bad’ ones are merely a product of the constructs they were born into. So all those MBs, and racists, and war-mongers, and hate-filled idiots you despise, we can make the world better for them too. That’s also how you prove them wrong. Show them the world can be a better place and maybe they’ll realize they don’t have to think and live the way they’ve been tricked into thinking they’ve got to live. Don’t for one second believe we’re the only worthwhile people around, because not only is it untrue, it’s never something a worthwhile person would think. We just happen to be in a pretty unique position right now with a pretty unique skill-set and lots of resources between the four of us. Let’s not confuse our privilege for anything other than an increased potential for effective action. But really deeply considered and deliberated action, because that’s what the world needs and deserves.”

Raymond goggled at her, “Wow…wow, I really do love you!”

Nico smiled, “You’d better. That was a pretty good speech and you can’t do this without me.”

“Holy shit, Nico, why didn’t you give that speech earlier?” Asher chided her playfully.

“Well you’re not Raymond and you can’t single handedly destroy the world, can you?” Nico jabbed back, “I let you have your delusions as long as they didn’t go too far. Don’t worry, Chandra and I had a plan if you ever did.”

Chandra grinned broadly, “Who would we be if we did not have a plan to rein you in if you required reining?”

Asher was mockingly gobstruck, “Would you listen to this? I never! We’re just a pair of playthings for these two. Of course they didn’t know about our super-secret plan regarding them, now did they?”

“Plan? What pla…Oh! The plan!” Raymond said, catching on too late.

“Thanks, buddy.” Asher joked.

One of the long-forgotten aides cleared her throat, bringing the group back to the reality of the Situation Room.

Asher snapped back to work, “Oh yes, well we probably shouldn’t keep standing around like a bunch of idiots smiling at one another. His Majesty President Raymond the First, if I could make a suggestion to his Grace, might I recommend finding some clothes that fit before you announce to the world you’re its new violent dictator? You look a bit overwhelmed by that suit.”

“I need time to practice the speech anyways. Do you guys want to go shopping and get a bite to eat? It might be nice to do something kind of normal for the first time in…almost a year?”

“I’m just shocked people have enough discipline to do things like shop.” Nico marveled as the group moved out of the room.

“Never underestimate the power of social inertia. It’s amazing how different the world can become while human culture clings to its artifices. Familiarity’s a hell of a construct.” Asher waxed.

The happy party, with their now-permanent tail of aides, left the White House and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in search of a fitting outfit for a ruler the world didn’t know it had.

[1] Waged during the height of the War on Drugs and Illegal Drug ParaphernaliaTM between America and the rest of the Americas. The war began after every other nation on both continents collectively decided they’d had it with America’s repressive drug policy.  Though the central grievance is now dismissed and generally viewed as “complete poppycock” by victorious historians, according to losing historians and the rest of the world, America’s indefinite War on Drugs perpetuated cycles of trauma, violence, and instability and allowed the United States to violate the sovereignty of weaker nations nearly at will. THE America, with heavy assistance from mysterious groups of well-funded, well-armed native freedom fighter armies within each combatant nation, won the war handily and turned the governments of the losing nations over to their new local allies.

[2] Raymond, cognizant he’d only punched the noses of white men thus far, decided diversity in all things was vital and made sure to punch the noses of as many minority women as he could find. Unfortunately there weren’t many. He made a note of this and decided it was one of the first things he’d change.

The Pile – Chapter Fourteen

After the widely-covered Martyrdom of Saint Tampala (PBUH)[1], MI’s online readership soared, requiring a massive expansion of their meager temporary servers’ capacity. Asher happily purchased the required components and set up shop in an abandoned coffin factory in Bethesda. With dramatic images of Saint Tampala’s (PBUH) protest shared with the furthest corners of social media, accompanied by instructions to “like, share, or comment on this picture if you want to be a good person,” there was a tectonic shift popular views. Opinions embraced righteous outrage towards egregious violations of SVB civil rights.

The loudest voices calling for retribution were individuals who’d discreetly or indirectly assisted anti-SVC activities. The majority of the population had stood by and done nothing while their friends and neighbors were burned out of their own homes by anti-SVC forces. The desire to validate their collective goodness and soothe guilty consciences was palpable. In this atmosphere, every article Modern Issue published was heralded as a hallowed truth told by haunted survivors of non-violent Pogroms.

Asher and Raymond spent these happy weeks in a storm of idea crafting, policy writing, and important-meeting attending as their influence spread across D.C. They found themselves on frequent trips to Capitol Hill, the White House, and Embassy Row so that eager government officials of every stripe could make sure there was no question as to where they stood on this recent SVB-related unpleasantness.

The main anti-SVC culprits, of whom Senator Stovall (R-OK) was the unrepentant figurehead, were summarily drubbed out of office in early-November after a dramatic swing in the polls, attributed primarily to the “October-Immolation-Surprise.” Rather than stay in Washington for the lame-duck session, many of the losing candidates who persisted in SVC-bigotry, joined by now-ostracized members of the military and economic elite, chose to retreat to a secret mansion refuge in what was left of Martha’s Vineyard, and form a new party with the unwieldy-but-highly-descriptive name Americans Fighting To Keep America The America We Have Known And Loved For Our Entire Lives, With Great Respect And Admiration For Our Esteemed Founders Who Knew What They Were Doing And Shouldn’t Be Questioned, which was shortened by the headline-constrained media to Americans Fighting For America (AFFA).[2]

Asher and Raymond, following these events closely, began publishing articles calling for a détente with the anti-SVC holdouts. Their position stated that it was for the greater good of society to begin the healing process, which required forgiveness for all parties. Safely-elected politicians who’d recently been eager to meet with the Modern Issue team became increasingly unavailable. They viewed the “peacenik concessionism” of recent MI articles a liability for their credibility on national defense and viewed talking with AFFA as an insufferable case of negotiating with terrorists.

As the reprisal-driven government began to draft new security laws, seize AFFA-related bank accounts, and suggest citizens would be wise to report suspicious members of their community as there may or may not be a financial reward involved, Modern Issue churned out articles advocating against the encroaching police state and in support of a peace summit. Familiar faces began to show up in-and-around their much-less-secret safe-house.

“Asher, I think I just saw one of the thugs from the Red Roof Inn parked across the street. Are we being watched again? I don’t understand, aren’t we the good guys now?” Raymond asked Asher one evening after returning home from a meeting at the Danish Embassy.

Nico looked annoyed, “Can’t we stay off a government watch list for a few months? I was just getting my insurance claims in order.”

“It’s not our fault. And you’re the one who wanted as little violence as possible, right?” Asher vented, his frustration with Modern Issue’s too-brief taste of legitimate influence adding a bitter edge.

“Even when this government is for us they do not seem to be for us,” Chandra quipped.

It was December and nearly six weeks into a new project that demanded a great deal of time from both Chandra and Asher. The couple had drifted slightly but steadily away from their everyday conversations with Nico and Raymond.

“What else can we do?” Raymond asked, “We’ve got higher readership numbers now than at any time in our history, so even if some people aren’t listening, others are.”

“Oh yes, and we all know how much respect you have for the opinion of ‘the people.’” Asher joked, “I don’t understand how you don’t see how our only option is…”

“As always, no, and we aren’t talking about that.” Nico growled at him.

A moment of silence followed during which Raymond looked at each member in turn and seemed to be gathering his thoughts for a question before Chandra intercepted him with a startling pronouncement, “Asher and I have decided to construct a child.”

“What? Construct?” Nico convincingly pretended to gasp next to an equally shocked Raymond. Her excellent impression of surprise was significantly aided by Chandra’s choice of verb.

Asher continued, “Yes, we’ve decided one of our priorities is to increase our genetic footprint in an attempt to expand the population of individuals capable of understanding this group’s ideas.”

“You’re having a child to create a person who agrees with us?” Nico asked.

“No, not at all. Or at least not exactly as you put it. But Chandra’s better at explaining it than I am. She came up with the whole thing,” Asher insisted, turning to Chandra for assistance.

Chandra glanced at Nico for a moment of understand, “We will imbue our offspring with the capability to think in a way that prepares them to comprehend and wrestle with the notions our collective regularly debates. As we are all agreed that the process of synthesizing data between brains is essential, we are confident bringing a thinking human into the world is a maximally beneficial action.”

“Well, I see your point,” Nico allowed, “So you’re pregnant? Or still just in the planning phase?”

“Oh no, no, we do not believe in pregnancy. Or not anymore. I initially desired to give birth organically, however Raymond made a strong case against the idea while I was running tests on his neural pathways.”

“I had no idea we were talking about your own pregnancy! I thought we were just talking about pregnancy as an abstract! Still, I’m glad you’ve decided against it. Pregnancy is sexist because biology is sexist. If we have the ability we should rid ourselves of that anachronistic practice.”

“Asher and I both agreed when I mentioned that interesting opinion. I extracted the best genetic combination and now we’re equally enjoying the experience of watching our child grow external to our bodies.” Chandra paused, “Nico, would you and Raymond care to participate with a child of your own? Perhaps it would be beneficial to create these children together so they have companionship as they develop.”

“Oh…a child? I…well…I don’t know about that right now…” Nico blushed and stuttered, turning to a mutually unsure Raymond.

“Maybe…well I’m a little worried about this Spirit of Violence situation,” Raymond replied, “I’m not sure how I feel about creating a child who might be able to commit acts of violence.”

“I do not believe your lack of a condition is genetic. NFVS has never been a genetic issue, as I have explained many times.” Chandra corrected.

“Honestly, you guys might want to think about it. I was a little hesitant at first myself. But now I think there’s little I could do of greater value. If you think…” Asher began before pausing and pulling out his vibrating phone. Addressing the assemblage he apologized before he answered the call, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who this is so…Hello? Hello? This is, oh. What? What are you talking about? Who are you and…no…They wouldn’t do that. I have sources on the…no, where did you get your…hey, wait, Hello?”

Standing still with his phone to his ear, Asher turned back to the group, “I’ve…I’ve just received some…some news.”

Raymond, startled to see Asher unnerved, demanded, “What? What did you hear?”

“The AFFA compound on Martha’s Vineyard…tonight they’re going to destroy it.”

“Who’s going to do what!?” Nico insisted.

“The military…and CIA…and…and everyone. They’re going to take them out.”

Following a moment of shocked analysis, Nico gave voice to the alarm felt by the room, “What do you mean ‘Take them out?’ Have they found a way to use violence again?”

“I don’t know. That’s what it sounded like…And…and they are also coming here…”

“What?! But we cannot move our child! He is too fragile! There is no way we can…” Chandra was cut off by an approaching, rhythmic thrum.

“Is that…” Raymond began before the sight of ten incoming helicopters made his question irrelevant.

“What are we going to do?” Chandra shouted, panicking, “Our child is in the lab downstairs!”

“We must, we don’t know if they can use violence…maybe…maybe they’re just here to burn the house…” Asher looked lost in thought, in a dazed state unable to comprehend the current situation.

“Even if they only burn the house we still lose the child! A fetus is not a human being and is still subject to violence!” Chandra yelled.

“Really? Is that true? That settles that debate!” Raymond smiled absurdly, completely forgetting the desperate situation.

“Shut up you fucking asshole!” Asher roared at him, breaking away from his trance, “You have to stop them! You can stop them Raymond!”

“I…what do you mean? How?” Raymond attempted to look puzzled, unwilling to accept what Asher was asking.

“You know, you idiot! You’ve got to stop them!” Asher yelled again, moving to push Raymond towards the door.

“Stop! No…Raymond…but…what if they can use violence?” Nico stuttered as she attempted to grab Asher.

“Nico! It is my child! We cannot let them destroy us!” Chandra cried as she attempted to grab Nico.

No one successfully grabbed anyone and after a moment of impotence, the group regained control.

Raymond turned and spoke solemnly, “I won’t commit an act of real violence, but I will give a violent demonstration. If that doesn’t persuade them, I can’t do anything else. Let’s go.”

The force of Raymond’s words and the commanding tone of his voice as he spoke to Asher in a way he‘d never spoken to Asher before left the group speechless. With the helicopters now hovering overhead and black-garbed assault forces sliding down a reverse-gravity forest of ropes, there was no time to do anything but obey.

As the two men went outside, Raymond spoke to the trailing Asher, “Hopefully they’ve figured out how to use violence and I won’t have to do this.”

“Why hopefully? Where’s your obligation to humanity?”

“I’m starting to begrudge that obligation. I guess we’ll see.”

They came to a stop in the middle of their small yard as the road, rooftops, and sidewalks filled with gun-toting figures.

“RAYMOND CLOCK AND ASHER ROSE, LAY DOWN ON THE GROUND AND DO NOT MOVE. WE WILL NOT HURT YOU IF YOU COMPLY!” A tinny voice blared from above.

“Is it ‘lay’ or ‘lie’? Isn’t it ‘lie’ because they’re talking to animate objects?” Raymond asked Asher.

“I…what? Yes, I think so,” Asher laughed, “But look, I don’t think they can commit violence. I think they’re bluffing. I THINK YOU’RE BLUFFING!”

Bullets answered. The fire teams shot everything;  cars, fire hydrants, trees, bushes, flowers, other houses, garbage cans, garden figurines like those gaudy gnomes and flamingoes that, when Raymond drove by, he couldn’t really believe anyone owned anymore but then thought maybe they might be there ironically and he wasn’t getting the joke; anything but the two men standing in the yard. After a full two minutes of incessant gunfire the assailants ceased their barrage to assess their bloody work. Other than some horribly dinged-up vehicles and a now non-existent garden, which had so recently been the pride and joy[3] of old Ms. Fazartalingbragg, their uncomfortably-nice in an I’m-sorry-you’re-lonely-but-I-have-my-own-life-to-live-right-now neighbor, everyone remained whole and entirely vital.

“DID WE HIT YOU?” the sky-voice queried.

“NO! What did you think would happen?” Asher demanded as he stalked up to the nearest heavily-armed invader.

“Well…this was supposed to be a new technique with these new weapons, see, and well…I guess they don’t work…” the man Asher had confronted confessed as he looked down bashfully and kicked at the pile of shell-casings at his feet.

“How was firing willy-nilly all over the neighborhood flowers and shrubs supposed to make violence work?” Nico yelled as she ran to Raymond and held onto him as if he were about to slip away from her forever.

“Well, it’s in the ricochets…the guns have increased power so the bullets will bounce off objects and hopefully hit the target without coming directly from a human…” continued the man, looking more and more embarrassed as he tried to explain.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” Raymond laughed, “That was your big plan?”

“SURRENDER AND WE WILL NOT HURT YOU,” called the tin-coated voice hovering over them.

“SHUT IT PHIL! IT DIDN’T WORK! ANOTHER DoD BOONDOGGLE” the man yelled back, “Well, sorry for the disturbance, folks. I guess we can’t kill you, but we still have to burn your house.”

“NO!” Chandra pleaded, “We are growing a child in the basement! You will kill it!”

“Growing? I don’t know what you folks’re about, but I’ve got my orders.” The man said as he removed the projectile-flame-spewing device hooked to his back. He ordered the awkward gathering of impotently violent men to follow suit and began priming the machine to commence with the incineration.

“Wait!” Raymond shouted, “Watch this!”

Running up to Asher, Raymond grabbed his friend’s shoulder and punched him in the nose.

“AH! What the hell, Raymond!  I think you broke my nose!” Asher howled as he doubled over, blood streaming down his face.

“I’m so sorry, Asher!” Raymond begged for forgiveness while Chandra, who’d come outside with Nico during the gun battle, ran over to comfort her lover and collect samples. Leaving Asher’s care in Chandra’s capable hands, Raymond looked up and shouted at the flabbergasted ranks of elite shock troops, “I CAN commit violence! Stop! I can commit violence!”

“WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? BURN THAT SHIT!” Phil ordered from above.

“How…how did you?” the soldier stammered as he backed away. Others came closer to see what was going on. As the men saw Asher’s bloody nose, some ran for their lives in fear, others wretched, sickened by the sight of the first functional violence they’d seen in nearly ten months. Still others sank to their knees in rapture, looking at Raymond as if they‘d seen an angel strolling down K Street.

“You have to get me to Martha’s Vineyard!” Raymond shouted.

“M-m-martha’s? Why?” one of the awestruck questioned.

“It’ll only continue the cycle of hate! It has to stop!”

“I-but…”

Raymond wound up for another swing.

The man winced and relented, “There’s no need for violence. PHIL! LADDER!”

After ensuring the soldiers had entirely abandoned their plans to put the safe-house to the torch, Raymond bid adieu to his friends before they could question or dissuade him. He boarded one of the helicopters, argued with a sorely put-out Phil, and was eventually whisked away to a nearby military base where he performed a second demonstration of violence on Phil’s nose[4] for disbelieving troops attempting to take him into custody. After his abilities were clear to all parties, a new helicopter was fueled and prepared for Raymond’s transportation to Martha’s Vineyard.

When he reached his destination, Raymond was exhausted and running low on the adrenaline that’d allowed him to steamroll his usual neurosis. His mind raced to catch up and filter his actions. Anticipating this, he’d erected a barrier of justifications to prevent the threatening forces of doubt from gathering strength outside the fortress of his resolve. This barricade was composed of a simple idea; that he, Raymond Clock, was the only person with the power to prevent this disaster from occurring, which meant, as Asher had stated earlier, he had an obligation to act. His personal prohibitions against violence meant little when measured against this solemn duty.

If the Spirit of Violence business was real, though he didn’t believe it was; but if, maybe, perhaps if the Spirit of Violence was real, he alone had been chosen to use violence. And so his choices and actions had the added benefit of feeling spiritually blessed, even though he didn’t actually believe in any of that spirit nonsense. Even without all the SoV stuff, Raymond, as the only uniquely normally functioning human left on the planet, still felt reasonably justified in using his abilities to pursue the best possible course. After all, after stripping away all the false humility and lattices of entangled theories he used to pretend his mind didn’t believe so, he’d always known that he knew what was best for humanity,

Landing just outside Senator Stovall’s looming estate as evening turned to night, Raymond hopped out, told the crew to wait for him, and, feeling all the world an international spy or secret agent like in those movies he never admitted to liking but secretly rather enjoyed when he just wanted to pretend the world was a simple black and white place where a guy running around a city with a gun blowing things up was actually doing more good than harm, stealthily made his way to the front-entrance. He wasn’t sure what else to do, so he rang the doorbell.

A very narrow trombone emerged from inside. This was held by short, squat man in a hunting jacket and cowboy boots. The man pointed the trombone at Raymond’s chest and grumbled, “Whadyawant?”

“Hi, umm, sir. My name is Raymond Clock, and you’re all in danger.”

“Danger? Raymond Clock…” The hunting jacket wearing gentleman turn around and yelled back into the house, “Lieutenant Colonel Crowley, Sir! We have a visitor! He says his name is Raymond Clock and he says we’re in danger! What should I do with him?”

“Let him in. Let him in and bring him to me.” A high-pitched voice answered from within.

“Go.”

The man, clutching what Raymond now saw was an antique elephant gun, prodded him down a musty hallway lined with old pictures of Senator Stovall (R – OK) shaking hands with celebrities and corporate sponsors.

The hallway emptied into the main dining room where an equally musty group of elderly white gentlemen were sitting around a candle bedecked solid wood table debating.

“I’ll not have it, not here, not in my home,” a man Raymond recognized as Senator Stovall (R-OK) proclaimed as he pounded his fist on the table.

A lumpy-faced mustachioed man in a tweed suit, who spoke with a southern drawl and a wad of chewing tobacco under his lip, responded in a voice laced with helium, “When you kindly allowed us to use your home as our headquarters, you were agreeing to put the needs of AFTKATAWHKALFOEL,WGRAAFOEFWKWTWDASBQ first. This man can help us. He has connections and explosives expertise. We need him.”

“I will not be the first Stovall to host a Chinese in the family estate, no sir,” the former Senator (R-OK) continued before noting Raymond’s entrance, “Well, I don’t believe my eyes. You’re not amongst friends Mr. Clock, as you must well know. Why’re you here? And choose your words well, son.”

Raymond punched the elephant-gun toting man in the nose and addressed a silent room, “I’m not here as your friend and I don’t know why you would even pretend to threaten anyone. You’re all part of a cadre of pathetic, sad, bitter old relics this nation has the extremely unpleasant task of re-socializing. I was looking forward to the great cull of time to naturally reduce your herd, but now with NFVS, it seems we have to deal with one another indefinitely. I’m the only human being on Earth who can use violence and I’m going to use it to put a stop to the cycles you represent.”

Helium dude responded first, “Mr. Clock, my name is Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Crowley and I can assure you as the leader of AFTKATAWHKALFOEL,WGRAAFOEFWKWTWDASBQ, we’re listening. I don’t know how you can do what you can do, but we will give you our time. ”

“Oh. Well…in that case…” Raymond paused to think. He’d assumed they would attack him after his diatribe, but after a moment of recalibration, his brain snapped back into action, “Good. First, you’re in danger. The government is coming to capture or trap you. They tried to kill me and burn my home earlier this evening.”

“How? How do they plan to do that?” Crowley responded, his voice rising to new octaves.

“I don’t know. They tried some stupid bullet bouncing thing with us so whatever they have planned will probably be equally moronic, but it‘s also likely be highly destructive, as always. I suggest you make preparations to leave immediately.”

Crowley made a motion and two middle-aged gentlemen in dusters and bowlers, who’d been standing behind him during the meeting, sprinted out of the room.

“Second, and I assure you I follow up on my threats,” Raymond said as he motioned to his third broken nose of the night, which was currently still bleeding on the fuming hunting-jacketed individual seated nearby while his gun rested peacefully in his lap, “I demand you stop all anti-SVB activities at once and live a regular and happy life free from violence and hate.”

The elderly gentlemen around the table looked to one another in silent agreement, “Mr. Clock, we would rather die than see this great nation fall into the hands of you Crazy bastards.” At those words each of the gentlemen grabbed one or two of the pistols they always carried on their person and fired every round they had at Raymond, who sighed and waited for them to stop.

“Conservatives are so annoying. Now let’s try this again, children. I need you to…”

He was interrupted by shattering glass and a sudden flash of yellow fur and brown feathers zipping around the room.

“What the hell?” Raymond goggled.

“Mr. and Mrs. X, Agent Jackrabbit! Capture Lieutenant Colonel Crowley!” A voice shouted from an unknown location.

Raymond could make out what looked like two predatory cats darting towards the table carrying a net between them with…yes that looked like a bird of prey, maybe a hawk? He didn’t know specific species of birds as well as he would have liked at that precise moment. Whatever was happening, the fur and feathers had tangled Lieutenant Colonel Crowley in their net before anyone else moved.

“Agent Steel! Agent Sparkles! Acquire the package!” another voice called from a different unknown direction.

Now a hulking animal, unmistakably a gorilla, a highland Silverback if Raymond’s memory served him correctly, careened across the room, terrifying the un-netted guests and motivating the ensnared Crowley to struggle with his bonds a bit harder. Behind the gorilla came a…what was that? A chimp, right? Yeah, it had to be a chimp. Raymond didn’t know if there were different types of chimpanzees, he just remembered that he’d thought for the majority of his life that chimps were the closest animal in terms of genetics to humans and had been embarrassingly disabused of that notion by a casual acquaintance at a party[5]. But he was sure this was a chimpanzee, whatever type of chimpanzee it might be. It was moving in behind the big gorilla towards the trapped Crowley.

As the apes approached the large cats, who Raymond recognized now as cheetahs, the felines noticed the chimp, lost their professional bearing, slipped out of their harnesses, and pounced on poor, poor Agent Sparkles, ending her life and resulting in the third case of carnivorous fratricide in the Agency’s long and storied history.

“AGENT SPARKLES!” a third voice called from nowhere.

A deafening roar cowed the bedlam of the room. The roar was followed by a groan of earth and building material as the ground began to sink into itself.

“JOHNSON! Didn’t you deconflict operations with NSA?”

“What? No that was Johnson! I was in charge of briefing Agent Jackrabbit and…and…the late Agent Sparkles…”

“Don’t blame me! I wasn’t supposed to coordinate with those fuckers! That was you, Johnson! Deputy Johnson tasked you himself!”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job, Johnson! If this was Beirut…”

Before Johnson could tell the congregation of Johnsons what he’d do if he was in Beirut, the structure collapsed and into sank into a hole.

The hole had been created by the subterranean nuclear blast of the twelve-kiloton atomic device the NSA had requested to sink the Stovall estate. Rather than merely sink the estate, however, the blast was sufficient to sink the entirety of Martha’s Vineyard. Within minutes the guests, house, grounds, and body of poor, poor Agent Sparkles were all dragged underneath the freezing December waters of the North Atlantic.

Hours later, Coast Guard rescue ships trolled the uncharted stretch of sea littered with the finest in modern furniture, clothing, and accessories old-money could buy. The crews eventually came across a man impressively balanced in a yoga position on a broken section of what appeared to be a long dining room table. As they hauled in the bedraggled, shivering soul, the crack rescue squad’s human resource representative asked the man for his name so they could check if he was on their list of currently missing persons.

Raymond responded calmly and deliberately despite his spasmodic trembling and the relentless clattering together of his teeth inside his frozen mouth, “M-m-my n-n-name is R-r-raymond C-c-clock, and I n-n-need you to t-t-take me to W-w-washington D-d-d. C-c-c. R-r-right n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-now.”

[1] The incident/man’s official designation mandated by the flourishing Church/Temple/Synagogue/Mosque/Shrine of Violence® (C/T/S/M/SoV®) after an intense debate by the newly self-appointed CTSMSoV® Elders/CEOs. Out of the ten proposed holy trademarks  presented to focus groups by the CTSMSoV® Deacons/Marketing Team, “The Martyrdom of Saint Tampala (PBUH)” tested most positive across every demographic except agnostics, who responded neither positively nor negatively.

[2] The first building the organization bombed was owned by the media company in responsible for the name shortening slight.

[3] And really the only reason she got up in the morning anymore ever since her husband passed two years ago and her children moved away and stopped writing. Her children had an underdeveloped ability to deal with the pity they felt for others suffering from grief, a cycle they’d learned from their parents. Therefore they avoided anyone in the throes of extreme sorrow. Whenever they tried to help, their nagging guilt transformed into resentment faster than they liked to admit, which made them feel ashamed. Other’s pain felt like their own personal punishment; like they’re the real victim.

[4] A demonstration he was much less sorry to perform by the time the disagreeable and bloodthirsty Phil delivered an impatient Raymond to the base.

[5] The acquaintance had informed Raymond that it was actually bonobos who shared the most DNA with humans. After the conversation, so it wouldn’t look like he was upset about being corrected because only a horribly immature ass with a fragile ego would be upset by such a thing, he’d stayed at the party for a respectable length of time before excusing himself from the event with a fake emergency he made sure to tell everyone was political in nature, returned home, and moved away from the city as quickly as possible.

The Pile – Chapter Thirteen

“It’s really humming along.” Asher remarked, turning away from his headline-laden screen.

Even a full week after the burnings, “The Purging of Anacostia” was trending. Screens were pumped full of burning LLS’s, Anacostians fleeing to the stability and safety of the ruins of Georgetown, and red-faced talking-heads screaming about the government’s lack of efficacy in tracking down on the “SVC Master Cell[1].”

“It does seem rather incessant,” Chandra replied before consuming another mouthful of massaman curry, “Raymond, if you would not mind too terribly, I need a bit more bone-marrow.”

“Do you? I don’t know if I’ve got any left!”

“I know it’s an unfortunate situation, but you’re the only one who can do it. We can’t even break your skin.” Nico reminded him.

“I’m aware, but extracting vital parts from my person is more concerning than the pain.” His companions’ expressions remained unchanged, so Raymond accepted his fate, “Anything in the name of Science.”

He picked up a syringe from the nearby counter and plunged it with expert proficiency into his leg, carefully pulling up on the plunger to remove the requested biological material.

“Please make this the last test.” Raymond said, handing the now-full needle to Chandra.

“I wouldn’t bet on it, bud.” Asher laughed.

“I believe I am nearing an answer,” Chandra replied as she placed the syringe containing Raymond’s bio-matter on the table to take another bite of curry, “I have already discovered so much. You are entirely unaffected by NFVS and remain completely normal by historical human standards. This has profound implications for Spirit of Violence theories.”

“Raymond is normal, therefore he’s special,” Asher glibly summarized.

“Precisely. This Spirit of Violence has exempted you. The reasoning for this oversight, or intentional choice, is unclear. My next round of tests may give us some insight.”

“I also think it’s rather unfortunate I’m still ageing while the rest of you get to enjoy the blossom of your youths indefinitely.”

“I wouldn’t be too envious, you do have an international monopoly on violence.” Asher said.

“And what exactly am I going to do with violence? You know I’m a pacifist.”

“Yes, I understand your stance,” Asher continued, “but we have a chance to accomplish everything we’ve ever dreamed…”

Nico burst in, “Asher, we’ve discussed this at extreme length. Using Raymond’s…state…to pursue national dominance and policy goals would go against everything we stand for. We can’t create a world where we’ve grabbed power through violence!”

“Nico, we have to play the cards we’re dealt. Have you looked at the world? Have you seen the horror we inflict on one another even without violence? Our species, left alone, is savage and brutal, incapable of the sophistications needed to craft a better global society. If we, as enlightened members of that species, need to compromise our vaunted moral code to steer our people towards a better life, don’t we have that obligation? It’s absurd to let personal morality stand in the way of the global good.”

“There must be another way. If we participate in the cycle of violence, we’re perpetuating the system we’re purportedly replacing. The method of creation matters to the long term mythos of a society. If we root our foundation in blood, as every human institution has done throughout history, we’ll harvest corruption.”

“Look, I understand we all want moral purity; I understand it feels good to remain untainted, but we aren’t dealing in absolutes here…”

“Asher! Stop!” Raymond cut him off, “I will not. At least not right now. Human society is already so far out of balance and extremist in its reactions, if I reveal myself it’ll do more harm than good. If, and I say this completely hypothetically, but if we ever needed to create the type of government we’ve always talked about, we must be certain we’re doing it at a time where the smallest possible amount of violence is necessary to overthrow the system.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Asher conceded, content he’d moved his cause forward. “For now we’ll hammer away on MI.”

The group turned its attention back to their screens, which were displaying an exhibition match for the newly organized NFVS games[2].

“Raymond, I have to ask you something that’s been bothering me.”

“What’s that?”

“How did you not know you could use violence? I experimented with all sorts of weird things, like those guys jumping off the LLS roof.”

Nico nodded, “Yeah, me too. I’m guessing a huge chunk of our population would’ve died in really silly ways if violence started working again[3].”

“Yes, I thought on that as I experimented on myself,” Chandra added, “It would have been quite embarrassing.”

“Oh…Really?”

“Didn’t you try anything?” Nico asked.

“Well…once I saw those MBs jumping off the LLS…well…I felt like it was just too stereotypical. I…I didn’t want to be like one of…”

“Jesus Christ, Raymond!” Asher shouted as Nico and Chandra shook with laughter, “If you’d been a little less neurotic for once in your life and not worried about how you were perceived maybe the thing with DeMast…”

“Asher!” Nico stopped him.

The subject was dropped, but tensions continued.

Nico intended to broach the subject on a number of occasions, but she held back. Initially she believed her hesitance was out of concern for Raymond’s well-being; that any discussion of the horrifying act would trigger spasms of depression, regret, and revulsion. But as time passed and Raymond seemed both stable and relaxed, Nico dismissed this idea and the source of her concern remained a mystery.

Two weeks after the incident, she found the answer to her question.

The thought assaulted her one night as the couple rested in bed. The weather was unusually warm for mid-September and Nico felt stifled and sweaty under her blankets. She kicked out a leg to let it breathe, but found the air slightly too cold for full exposure. She decided to peel back a layer of sub-par cotton to achieve a temperate equilibrium. As she tested the state of relative comfort achieved as each layer was removed, she was seized by a powerful urge to throw off the restrictive coverings and abandon the bed, house, city, state, and country entirely.

Nico wondered at its origin. She glanced over at Raymond, who had his back turned towards her so that she could only make out the slow, peaceful rise and fall of his body in rhythm with each soft breath. The frenzy within her rose to a panic. Her own breathing became short and labored. She trembled with unmistakable dread.

Nico turned to the ceiling for support, clung to the sheets beneath her, and imagined that letting go would unleash actions outside her conscious control. She feared the genetic legacy of her primordial ancestors, who required instantaneous and unquestioning biological mechanisms to flee the great and vicious beasts populating their primitive environments. But she was an enlightened homo sapien who could make the choice to never allow herself to be controlled by internal impulses she could describe, quantify, and understand. So she embraced her sheets with both hands and analyzed her mind.

Nico spent the next day waiting for a quiet moment with Chandra. She eventually found the doctor at work alone in the makeshift laboratory they’d constructed in the basement of the safe-house. Each of their sanctuaries had a hodge-podge basement lab, however the house on Old Dominion was Chandra’s favorite, and she saved her most delicate experiments for its slightly-less primeval equipment.

Nico descended the rickety wooden stairs into the warmly lit stone cellar. Chandra was bent over a DIY molecular-microscope of her own design.

“Chandra, umm, Chandra.”

Chandra looked up, curious to see Nico waiting for her.

“Hi, Nico.”

“I need to talk to you about something.”

“Please come join me here, and let us sit,” Chandra suggested, motioning towards the small wooden table flanked by two plastic stools in the center of the room.

“Of course, of course I’m sorry for interrupting.”

“Please do not trouble yourself.”

The two women took seats at the cheap table perpendicular to one another. Nico shivered.

“Are you cold? I did not think the environment to be such, but I apologize if you are feeling a chill.”

“No, it’s not the temperature.”

“Of course not.”

“It’s my mind.”

“Why does your mind bother you?”

“Because I’m having trouble controlling and understanding my impulses.”

“That’s the human challenge, to create personal infrastructure that assists in self-control where reason and willpower alone are not enough.”

“This irrational fear currently feels beyond my ability to cope alone.”

“Why do you label your fear irrational? What is the source of your fear? Perhaps it is well founded.”

“Raymond is the source.”

“Then it is not irrational at all. You are romantically involved with the only force we know of that can inflict harm upon you. This is terrifying.”

“It is irrational! This’s been the power dynamic between women and men forever. I am not unique.”

“You are not unique in the context of the past, but you are unique in the context of the present.”

“I suppose that’s technically accurate.”

“The technicality makes all the difference.”

“Last night I had a panic attack and realized I feel real fear around him.”

“Of course you do. Who would feel any different? He is the only threat to you.”

“That’s the hard part. I’m understanding and acknowledging my fear, and working with it to find the right equilibrium of awareness and comfort. But I don’t think fear is what’s troubling me the most.”

“Where else could your panic originate?”

“I’m a bit embarrassed by this. I don’t know if I should be, but I feel some sort of embarrassment because I don’t think it’s alright to feel this or be driven by this…”

“What embarrassment? You are in a safe environment without judgment.”

“I think I’m finally in love with Raymond.”

“You are embarrassed for being in love?”

“No, no, it’s not the state of being in love that’s embarrassing, but the reasons. I’m terrified because he’s the only danger to me in the entire world. And that idea made me see him in a new light.”

“That could be a self-destructive impulse”

“I know! At first I was disgusted with myself, hence the embarrassment. I’m not attracted to violence or danger or anything like that. I’m repulsed by it. And I know, absolutely, that Raymond would never inflict harm on me or anything else intentionally. He’s talked to me, often, in that well-rehearsed-story way of his, about his inability to kill even insects in his own home because he imagines their living conditions and family and creates elaborate and completely nonsensical scenarios where if he kills an insect that’s slightly inconveniencing him, he’s dooming its children to a life of orphaned hardship and grief for their dead parents while also contributing to the cycle of violence and hatred between man and insect that’s been perpetuated…etc etc.”

“Yes, that sounds like a thought that originated with Raymond. No one could confuse him with a violent or physically intimidating individual.”

“That realization was the initial stimuli, I think. But the real fear, and this is what I’m getting at, my real fear is that he’s the only force in the universe that can hurt me in non-physical ways as well. And that’s why I don’t think it’s the physical violence aspect of him that really triggered my love, just seeing him differently, in this case as a threatening force.”

“That is very possible.”

“But because I love him he has power over me and can destroy me if he chooses. He’s non-violent by choice, but I’m worried about his mental and emotional state. So that’s the real existential dread for me. That’s what I’m struggling with now and I want to know how you manage to be in love without this panic-inducing sensation crying to you, ‘You fool! You’ve given your emotional sovereignty over to a monster!?’”

“I feel it as well. We are all potential monsters towards one another, physically and emotionally. There is nothing binding us other than our own decision-making. And yet we all know of our mind’s flaws and how our reason is subject to the whims of our alchemically-brewed state of consciousness. When we fall in love, we grant the power to injure and even destroy to an independent creature as permeable and malleable as we know we are ourselves. So we hope this other entity, out of luck, or empathy, or just the right combination of chemicals, does not decide to exercise their power.”

“Why take that gamble?”

“At the risk of sounding trite or overly sentimental, do you want to be in love?”

“I want to learn about love and then decide.”

“To collect empirical data you have to experience it for yourself.”

“Is it possible to collect this data without exposing yourself?”

“There is no rationalization or preparation or mental construct that can prevent the person we give that power to from hurting us if they choose. You decide to be in love or decide to eschew love in favor of relative safety.”

“That’s an unfortunate choice.”

“At least it is a choice. However, we are too often distracted by the negative aspects inherent in every choice we make. It leaves us blind to the other side of love.”

“The love side of love?”

“Yes. We also imbue our partners with the power to make us happy and greater than we are capable of becoming alone. The synthesis of two beings in love.”

“We give them power over who we become.”

“The power to influence.”

“And to control?”

“Mutual love is mutual control, is it not?”

“Yes. Or mutual destruction. And I’ve already worn this mask for so many years, it’s comfortable and familiar.”

“But our skepticism has left us worse off. For all our vaunted ‘enlightenment’, what do we have? Knowledge of our superiority? That we are facing existence alone?”

“Chandra, I won’t embrace a fictional existence where I ignore reality to create my own narrative.”

“That is the point though, Nico. It is all fictional.”

“We have reality, the reality we perceive, our mutual reality we agree on.”

“We have our observations, and then we have our narratives.”

“The narratives we create to link our observations to future actions.”

“Our narratives are what lead us and drive us, and they are, without exception, all fictions.”

“Humans need stories to follow.”

“And the stories they follow matter.”

“There’re a hell of a lot of shitty stories out there.”

“A hell of a lot,” Chandra agreed.

The two women contemplated in one another’s presence. Finally Nico asked, “What story should we be following?”

“One we write and follow intentionally, I think.”

“And is that story about love?”

“Love, but more importantly I believe it’s about vulnerability.”

“Vulnerability?”

“Yes. Vulnerability with full knowledge of both love and horror. We continually gird ourselves for the assault we face each day from other humans who carelessly use the power of their words and actions. We are steeled and prepared to resist; however this incessant preparation leaves us taught and rigid with anticipatory trauma. Our armor becomes our weakness.”

“That’s my life.”

“And mine. But the route of vulnerability, the conscious decision to rid ourselves of both the protection and the shackles of our emotional armor, recognizes and embraces the risks of love and peace. Knowing of danger and possible destruction and leaving yourself vulnerable to it is one of the highest expression of sentience.”

“As well as being naïve and foolish.”

“It can be that as well. But it is your choice to make, and you cannot walk both routes. You are terrified because you are suddenly vulnerable. That is your risk and no one can help you or shield you. The only person with any power over this besides you, as long as you remain open to love, is Raymond. And you maintain the powers of happiness and destruction over him should he reciprocate. Do you have trust, hope, and faith in him?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t know.” Nico replied.

“I suppose that what you need to know to decide.”

“You trust Asher? You have faith in him?”

Chandra looked unsure of herself for the first time, “I…I have faith in myself. I have faith that no matter what devastation is brought upon me, my being will endure.”

“Isn’t that hedging your bets? You’re not ‘opening yourself up entirely’ if you maintain the idea that you need to keep a small reserve just in case the worst happens.”

Chandra smiled, “You are right, however just because I am not able to accomplish the fullness of the love I am discussing does not mean I am wrong.”

“We’re blessed with the reasoning to answer our questions and cursed with the knowledge of how complex our Sisyphean task remains.”

“And so we, unlike Sisyphus, plan ahead and spend energy building infrastructure.”

“What do you mean?”

“We must build personal happiness infrastructure. You can intentionally construct a narrative with positive feedback mechanisms using whatever power you have. These life-improvement projects add reinforcing layers of happiness resiliency and help perpetuate the positive feedback loops you create for yourself.”

Nico was still confused, “One more time. What projects?”

Chandra grinned, “Well, besides identifying your mentally healthiest self and the passions you’ve always had and unabashedly improving yourself in pursuit that healthy version of yourself and those passions, there are certain things you need the assistance of an incredibly genetically gifted lab assistant to create…”

“Oh! Oh! Really? You and Asher…?”

“Yes, though I agreed not to reveal this to either Raymond or yourself for the time being.”

“Why? This is wonderful!”

“I believe he thinks if we reveal ourselves to Raymond now, with everything else going on, it might cause undue stress.”

“Undue stress? He really does believe Raymond is made of glass, doesn’t he?”

“I think they spent so long together under a certain dynamic that it is hard for him to take any action he feels might upset what he views as Raymond’s fragile psyche. I believe he also feels fear.”

“He’d be amazed what Raymond can handle.”

“Well we know that, but Asher is more fragile than he considers himself, so his concern for Raymond is a bit of a projection. How we indulge them! They are both fortunate individuals to have such understanding partners, are they not?”

“They should count their blessings.”

The two friends continued their discussion for hours. Eventually ascending for dinner, Nico and Chandra embraced their partners with all the love, terror, happiness, and sorrow they allowed.

That evening during their meal, they overheard the television news use the phrase, “Spirit of Violence Believers,” and Asher hushed the group.

“…a dramatic display of belief and bravery, Mr. Tampala spoke with us at a press conference he held directly following his martyrdom near the Reflecting Pool…”

Raymond, convinced Jake Tampla’s immolation was the catalyst they’d been waiting for, played thirty seconds of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” before feeling too self-conscious about the racial dynamic of his selection in light of his relative privilege and changed the music to a more palatable-though-unfortunately-stereotypical-but-there-just-wasn’t-enough-time-to-make-a-thoughtful-choice “Times They Are a Changing” by Bob Dylan.

[1] As Chandra, Nico, Asher, Raymond, and Bill the driver were popularly known on social media. Feeling fairly guilty for dragging faithful Bill the driver into her mess, Nico bought him an island and set him to live like a king with his family for the rest of their lives. Bill the driver agreed to this arrangement.

[2] An instantly viral decathlon event hosted by Pink Bull Mobility Oil and Shale LLC. (PBMOS +17.34%). Events: 1. Shotgun Sumo Surprise – In this event participants are given a double-barreled shotgun and attempt to blast one another out of an arena. 2. Wicked Witch Crawl – In this event a house is dropped on participants, who race to crawl out of the rubble. 3. Tiger Terror – In this event participants must retrieve the remains of a goat from inside a packed tiger cage. 4. Wind Tunnel Trouble – In this event participants attempt to ring a bell hanging from a pole in front of an industrial-strength wind turbine. 5. Base Jump Bonanza – In this event participants jump off a 100-meter platform and race to the ground. 6. Peer Spear Mayhem – In this event participants attempt to spear one another with repurposed javelins. 7. Aqua Polo – In this event participants are sealed in a 50m x 50m glass box filled with water and attempt to escape. 8. Poison Eating – In this event participants compete to create and consume the most poisonous concoction. 9. American Football – In this event participants form teams where one side tries to transport an object to the end of a field while the other beats them into giving up the object. 10. Dodgeball, but with real guns – In this event participants play dodgeball, but with real guns.

[3] Harmology literature written at the time speculates 15% of the human population would have perished via falling off tall buildings/objects/planes, 10% trying to catch bullets in their teeth like those TV magicians, 6% by working up the gumption to try out one of those homemade fireworks recipes as seen on the Internet, 3% as victims of violent video game enthusiasts acting out their fantasies, and 1% from the broad category of “Sexually Related Mishaps.” At least 60% of humanity fit into a large “Other” category that ranged from bored housewives boldly working up the courage to drop a toaster into the bathtub for the electric thrill to investment bankers studiously experimented with various ratios of pure, uncut cocaine.

The Pile – Chapter Twelve

I’m practically a member of the KKK, maybe not in philosophy, but the result! That’s what matters. The results! There’s no justification for this. Was it self-defense? Clearly not. No lawyer could claim self-defense. My “self” was barely involved, nor was it at risk. He was attacking Nico, so I was defending her. Was that chauvinistic of me? Did I assume she, as a woman, couldn’t handle herself? Maybe I owe her an apology for taking away her power. But…well I knew the attack wouldn’t do anything, so why did I react? And mine did something! So…well I guess that means I didn’t know that his wouldn’t do anything for sure now. I mean, I don’t think it would have, even though mine worked. I couldn’t just assume though, that’s not how civilization works or how we are programmed or…Oh god! I killed him! He was one of the most important thinkers in a generation! But…well how could he ever resort to violence as a method? Maybe he wasn’t resorting to violence, in fact, as violence doesn’t exist anymore. It was just a simulacram of violence. Wait…simulacram? Simulacrum? Am I even using it correctly? I said “simulacra/um of violence, which I think would mean a fake representation of violence, like just a show. Hmm, I will have to look it up. Wait, I have my phone and…oh…I probably shouldn’t check it right now. That would look horrible if I looked like I was mindlessly checking my phone after I just killed someone. I bet they would think I was some sort of psychopath. Oh…do they? I wonder what they’re thinking about me…I think my face needs to look properly consternated, or concerned, or…ahh what’s the word! I really want access to my thesaurus right now. I read somewhere that humans are becoming worse at retaining information because we know we have access to instant information. I can see both sides of that coin…Wait? Am I a psychopath for thinking about this stuff right after I killed someone?  I did resort to violence after all. I don’t think DeMasters was being violent because he couldn’t. He was just using a simula…like a pantomime of violence to express the extreme nature of the situation. I used actual violence. Yes, I didn’t know that it was actual violence at the time, but it’s the result! DeMasters made violent motions knowing violence didn’t exist and didn’t commit violence. I made violent motions knowing violence didn’t exist and committed violence. I think that’s pretty clear. How did I do it though? I was in the car near where Nico was standing, he came forward, and I reacted by pushing him. Why did I assume Nico couldn’t handle it? Is that my dominant class mentality showing? I was defending her; was it because she’s a person I love or was it because she’s a woman I believe belongs to me and another man was encroaching on my territory? I really have no idea. How could I answer that? I would have to repeat the situation with other people I care about of different gender backgrounds and maybe ethnic groups. Hmm…That would be an extremely difficult experiment to construct. A bias probably exists in too many of the variables I can’t control. Maybe ethnicity would skew the results? I would have to use all half-Japanese people. But I don’t know that many half-Japanese people and certainly none I care about as much as…What am I thinking about!? Am I thinking about this to distract myself from focusing on what I’ve done? I need to understand the full implications of my sins. So…okay. Think about only that right…now. The facts. I killed a man. The man I killed was Dr. Francis DeMasters. The act was accidental even though I did make a violent motion. It was not my intention to kill him, obviously. But…well why did I attack in the first place? I was responding to his advance, but I need to answer why I was reacting. I’ve never done anything violent in my entire life! I’m a pacifist! How in the world do I justify those ideals now? Well, I need to accept there is no justification at all for this, except maybe…No! Stop! There is no justification. Okay, yes. It is not intention that matters, it’s the result. Maybe intention can mitigate though? The fact is the man died after I pushed him. He would not be dead if I had not done that. Wait a second, if we’re looking at causation, isn’t it true I wouldn’t have pushed him if he hadn’t advanced violently? Maybe, but that’s a pretty weak defense. You wouldn’t have pushed him if you hadn’t ever met him, or if Nico had ordered food that day in the LLS, or if the United States had lost the Revolutionary War. What if me killing DeMasters is a singular event that occurs in every possible universe? Well that’s just stupid, that would imply some plan or inevitability. That’s true…but it’s fun to think about! Like if there were certain events that…You son of a bitch! You’re doing it again. You just killed a human being and you’re daydreaming about how special you could be in a reality where there was a plan involving your pathetically meaningless life. This is how religious people think! They justify the unjustifiable with magical stories and obtuse moral lessons involving ancient agrarian civilizations in the Middle East. Look, you killed a human being, and not just any human being, one of the most important people alive. But that’s a good question, is my crime worse because Dr. DeMasters was an important person? If we start increasing the value of certain humans, doesn’t it decrease the value of an average person’s life? No, that’s just obfusticating the issue. It’s “obfuscating” not “obfusticating”. Wait…no it isn’t. I’ve heard people say obfustication. I swear I have. You’re an idiot, it’s obfuscating. Oh…oh yeah I remember now. I remember writing it and seeing my spell check underlining it in red with no spelling suggestions and being confused and upon looking it up feeling pretty dumb when I saw the result. Well that’s because you are. You learned and forgot and then fought for your ignorance. You’re an idiot. Anyways, you’re obfuscating the issue and philosophy. Feel morally justified and score all the points you want in your mental masturbation exercise, but in reality if there is some sort of attack and the government is scrambling, they will place the executive leadership and senior officials in secure locations. They aren’t going to run around collecting all the random people they can. That’s not a good use of their time. Alternatively, if we ever have to abandon Earth or something and had a spaceship that could only fit 1,000 people, would you really want the first 1,000 schmucks who showed up or wouldn’t you rather think it’s important to carefully select genetically superior humans to carry on the species? Okay…fine. Sure in those crisis situations sacrifices to practicality must be made, but I think you’re the one obfuscating the point now. I killed a human being, and that is important in absolute terms, not based on who the person is. The repercussions of killing one person might be different from the repercussions for killing another, but the act itself is inherently egalitarian.  When you kill a person…You realize you are creating this dialogue to separate yourself from the reality of the event, don’t you? Well of course, but I killed a person and it’s taking me a moment to process. Oh, well excuse me. What a poor, unfortunate murderer I am. I just committed an unjustifiable crime and I’m begging for pity and “time to process.” That’s fairly pathetic. I’m disgusting. I’m a beast; I’m everything I’ve always despised. I spout off pacifist platitudes and announce that “violence is never justified,” and then I go and commit a violent act in a world where violence no longer even exists! When push comes to shove I’m…Jesus, did I just make a play-on-words about a murder I just perpetrated? God, I’m such a horrible person. However, and here’s the truth of it, I really wish I believed I was even a slightly bad person. By punishing myself through this verbal assault I’m setting myself up for redemption after paying this supposedly heavy mental toll for my crime. If I insult myself enough, passionately enough, justice will’ve been served, even though I don’t believe for one second that I really believe any of the horrible things I’m saying. What did Jung say? Guilt is a poor substitute for real suffering? I feel worse for knowing I don’t believe it, but better when I know I feel worse, but then worse for feeling better for feeling worse. So then all my focus goes to this cycle and I never really feel bad about anything. I’m a lunatic who knows he’s insane but doesn’t actually quite believe it could be true. How do I break out of that cycle? Suicide? How about suicide? Hmm, well the problem is I don’t believe that retribution is an adequate form of justice. A society built on a system of revenge and the idea that if citizen X commits act Y then receives punishment Z…I don’t think that’s a healthy system. Once a crime is committed, how does perpetuating further violence on more human beings serve the civilization’s needs? Of course there needs to be disincentives to committing crimes, but there are diminishing returns on numbers of years served. Instead, I think a system of justice where rehabilitation, restoration, and forgiveness work with the idea that a society benefits more with fewer incarcerated citizens should be the order of the day. And…If I committed suicide it couldn’t just be a petty, personal moment. There are thousands of methods to sacrifice your life in a meaningful way. Ahh well, actually I guess there used to be, but not so much anymore without violence or death as viable options. Damn, martyrdom was always my fallback. But could I kill myself now? If I can use violence, does that mean others can use violence as well? I don’t remember experiencing any amount of discomfort as I pushed DeMasters, but as I’ve never pushed anyone before I’m unaware what the proper level of discomfort should be during the act of pushing a man to his death. If, and this is all just hypothetical musings in the backseat and I shouldn’t take any of these thoughts seriously until I have more information, but if I’m the only person who can use violence and, just for fun right now I’m going to think about this idea, if I’m the only one, well that would mean I, myself, me, I personally have a monopoly on violence. To some that’s the very definition of power. Who said that? I don’t remember right now, I really wish I could look things up without looking like a psychopath to everyone else right now. But I think it’s sort of a shame we don’t retain information anymore. I mean, I understand the benefits as well, but in situations like this when looking at your phone after you’ve killed someone would make you look like a psychopath to your friends, the ability would really help. I’ll just have to get over it and try to remember all the things I need to look up. But if I have a monopoly on violence, and of course this is just for my brain only, no one should know I ever had this thought, but, if I have a monopoly on violence I would be a veritable one-man army. I could go about setting the world to rights! Sometimes people just don’t understand anything other than violence! It’s sad but true, and as much as I wanted to deny that fact in my pacifism I think I just have to face facts. Now, it’s totally unjustifiable what I accidentally did to Dr. DeMasters, completely and totally unjustifiable. But let’s say violence is back…maybe he would have killed Nico? No one knows! I don’t know! And in that scenario if the only possible thing for me to do was to push him like that to stop him, I think I might do it again. Of course the intention was not there to kill him. In pushing him my brain, not once, never a single time said, “Oh, I think I will kill this man now.” So I can’t really, actually be a murderer. It was just an accident, an unjustifiable accident that will surely haunt me forever. But let’s say violence did exist and I let Nico die. Well that would have haunted me forever as well if I’d done nothing. So really, I was placed in a situation where I had a choice between two hauntings and I chose the one where I…okay I didn’t know so I didn’t choose but my actions happened to cause the  death of a person. And, I mean really DeMasters was not in his prime anymore, right? If we are looking at absolute values of individuals where we take into consideration contributions to society, well I would say Nico has way more potential to contribute given her stance on issues in the world right now. DeMasters had given up. And didn’t everyone already think he was dead? So…I mean it’s totally unjustifiable and I really am a horrible person for doing it, but maybe it wasn’t as bad as I first thought. Well, I mean it’s really bad. Like completely unjustifiable and the worst thing I could do. But not like the worst, worst thing I could do because there are maybe worse things I could do, like if I were to hurt society as a whole. Dr. DeMasters had kind of given up, so his contributions and legacy were basically over. Not that that makes it even a tiny bit okay or justifiable. But in a way he was kind of dead already. And now, if through his death I realize I can help the world, if I know I can use violence and set the world to rights, well maybe I can work hard to do everything I can to make up for this terrible accident. The rest of my life would be lived as a tribute to Dr. DeMasters. Everything from this point, especially if I have a monopoly on violence, will be done in his memory. This will be a type of catalyst for the change he always wanted to see in the world but never had the power to enact. It’s just that…I will have to be very careful. Once I walk down the lonely and treacherous road of absolute power I can never turn back. It is a real commitment and sacrifices would be needed, but I definitely know I’m up for the challenge! Not that I’m arrogant, though maybe I am a little, which I don’t mind and even kind of like about myself, but I’m probably the most qualified person in all of humanity to rule the world. I mean, I know that’s a horribly disgusting, megalomaniacal thing to say, but thinking that it’s a horribly disgusting, megalomaniacal thing to say is one of my best qualities! I should try to be honest with myself and admit I really think that, however. No more lies and faux-humility. I know my strengths and I know I’m too neurotic and self-reflective to ever get swept away by willy-nilly decisions and rash judgments in what would be my very mild brand of authoritarianism. It’s more intolerable to pretend I don’t want to lead the world. If I go into this venture, not that it’s going to happen, just role-playing the whole thing really, it’s just a silly and fun thing to think about when I don’t have all the facts, but if I go into this venture with clear goals and a specifically defined path to peace, harmony, and equality, why should I feel guilty for wanting to be in charge of humanity’s direction? But, just hold on before you get too high and mighty in your imagination. Isn’t that how a megalomaniac would justify their desire for glory and power? Yes! It absolutely is. But a real megalomaniac would never be self-aware enough to have this reflective line of thinking. So, I, unlike authoritarian regimes before me, have that built-in layer of neurotic protection that will serve me well if this whole scenario comes to pass. And another thing, we’d already decided we should be in charge? Right? So Asher should have no problem, none of them should have any problem with this. We had a plan to take power and we all agreed to it! This will just…expedite the process. I’m sure the group will be pleased. Even if there is no redemption from this regrettable accident I was involved in, I could at least use the knowledge I gained from the event to make the world better. In fact, if I collapsed under the weight of my responsibility to humanity at this moment, if my sin prevents me from moving forward and helping humanity as much as possible, I’d be left with a larger net negative than if I were to soldier on and try to fix things. This moment should act, as I said previously, as a catalyst, spurring me to action at the risk of personal damnation. I must admit I committed an unforgivable horror, however if I could, through a lifetime of work, somehow reduce the sum total of horrors generally inflicted on humanity, perhaps I could consider my life worthwhile.  No…but wait…no no no! I can’t…I can’t commit any more violence…No! How did I let myself walk that road in my mind!? I’m losing control and this is how dictators are born! It’s all just a contrived justification to abandon who I am and what I believe. And…I’m…I’m a pacifist! I’m a pacifist! I’m a pacifist…

 

The Pile- Chapter Eleven

Raymond awoke, as he had each morning all week, in the stranglehold of despair. After repeated, time-consuming failures to comfort him, Asher lost patience.

“You wanted to experience something authentic? Well you got it. Stop placing the poor and downtrodden masses on a pedestal; they’re just like everyone else, Raymond. You think the MBs are bad? Well they aren’t horrible because they’re privileged; they’re horrible because they’re normal human beings. The privilege just amplifies how intolerable they are because it projects over a wider range. The crack fiends, the prostitutes, the child laborers and soldiers; the suffering and the oppressed you’re so fond of idealizing are only human beings. You’re delusional if you think these people possess some special knowledge or insight as a result of their suffering. Sorry to break it to you, but they’re just as horrible as the MBs. The only way we’re going to make the world better is by creating a system that can minimize the impact of the horribleness the average human inflicts on everything they touch. So I’m sorry you lost your sacred cow, but you need to move on.”

Raymond noted the change in Asher’s tone. Gone was the joviality and inspiring confidence; supplanted by hard-nosed pragmatic realism. The shift frightened him. Was Asher utilitarian now? If so, Raymond worried what he could justify in pursuit of restructuring humanity in his image. What could be sacrificed in the name of pragmatism and The Greater Good?

Raymond fretted silently over this divergence in Asher’s normal outlook while putting on a brave façade for his harried companions.

Each member of the collective entered a state of hyper-productive activity, and in doing so withdrew emotionally. Chandra set up a lab in the perennially empty Red Roof Inn Grande Ballroom, providing plenty of space to continue the NFVS experiments. Asher regained a measure of his former vigor, albeit with a new fuel feeding his passions. His mind was bent on finding a political system capable of coping with and accounting for humanity’s fatal flaws. Working without sleep for days, he informed the others he was crafting a new treatise that would revolutionize human civilization.  Nico was engrossed in an intensive training regimen to prepare for her upcoming performance at APACT, which would serve as the ribbon cutting for her entire venture.

Nico was more proud of “The Anacostia Ballet Company Presents: An Off-Season Nutcracker” than anything she’d ever created[1]. It was the fulfillment of her long-suppressed aspirations. She’d always done what she thought was the right thing to do, which was usually not the thing she desired for herself. Those desires had been consumed by her commitment to only use her privilege for worthwhile causes. The success of those causes, however, had never truly fulfilled her. Here, with the opening of this theater and revitalization of this neighborhood, her desires and what she understood to be the morally righteous course dovetailed.

Raymond’s depression weighed on Nico as she peered over the precipice of her triumph, but she believed he was strong enough to find his own way if she was with him as support. She told herself that in these volatile times a new cause or project was bound to come along that would jar his psyche out of its torpor.

As part of the promotion campaign for the show, Nico scheduled an interview on a popular morning talk show. She scheduled herself to appear the day before the performance as a final injection of media buzz. The host of the program, noted puff-piece enabler Barbara O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith, was known for her passive demeanor and unique ability to make any authority figure look their best. She was the go-to media personality for public-relations rehabilitation campaigns for recently-sober actors, post-scandal politicians, and contrite, ego-maniacal dictators[2]. This juicy line-up made Wake Up! With Babs! essential viewing for the average office worker.

Nico arrived on set for the live interview early. She made a regular habit of showing up to her television appearances with plenty of time to ease into her surroundings[3].

The pre-television enhancement process began with Nico being shunted from station to station preparing her look to match what a human appearing on television is supposed to look like. Nico thought about Dr. Demasters’ thoughts on the subject of image tailoring, but even a brief glimpse of the man in her mind left her feeling bitter. She’d ignored the sage wisdom of older men telling her what she could or could not do for most of her life, but this felt different. Dr. Demasters was a man she’d grown up reading and respecting. It was of little consequence; Nico thought as a stylist rearranged her hair, she’d change his mind through successful results. Let his inaction be his shame.

Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith emerged from her dressing room to greet Nico five minutes before air time and informed her that the show had started a new segment in which they took questions through calls and tweets from the audience. The host insisted that the segment had proved immensely popular[4]. Nico agreed to the segment, but also made it clear she had no intention of answering personal questions.

Nico and Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith settled into their bright-red half-egg chairs modestly tilted towards one another on the periwinkle carpeting of the set. At the two minute warning, the crew scurried around making their final adjustments to create their intentional projection of reality. The show’s older-than-you’d-think host was coifed in a well-tailored pink pantsuit complete with white gloves, a pearl necklace, and a pink pillbox hat. The outfit could have been considered staunchly conservative if not for the extremely low-cut neckline on the pantsuit, revealing what felt like an oddly high percentage of the woman’s sternum. Nico quietly thought she looked like a caricature artist’s rendering of a nouvelle-vague Phyllis Schlafly. The large digital clock near the camera reached zero and Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith transformed into a television host.

“Good evening, lovely viewers! I am your host Barbara O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith and this is Wake Up! With Babs! Today we’re privileged to have with us Ms. Nico Leftiè, founder of Leftiè’s Luxury Suites for the Temporarily Monetarily Disinclined and sole heir to the Leftie Empire. She joins us to discuss her most recent project, the revitalization of one of the most dangerous urban areas in America, the Anacostia district of Washington D.C. Ms. Leftiè, welcome to the program. I have to start by asking, why did you decide to move forward with this project?”

“Well, Barbara,” Nico said through the filter of her elegant public persona, “As with my LLS initiative, I believe in helping people help themselves. Sometimes however, we need to first demonstrate that help is even possible. It’s our responsibility to remove barriers blocking progress so that people have more opportunities to be the person they want to be and contribute to the world in the way they want to contribute. That’s what this project will do.”

“Oh that sounds simply splendid! It’s so refreshing to see the leaders of our communities taking an interest in charity work that helps the less fortunate! There are those who say your charity projects hurt your quarterly earnings reports. How would you respond to this charge?”

Nico smiled charmingly, “These rumors are flat-out wrong in the same way they were wrong when the same people predicted a net loss after the LLS campaign. Our investments continue to excel, despite the dire warnings of the doomsayers. If they spent half the time they spend fear mongering and shorting stocks creating their own projects, we might not be in the economic mess we’re in today.”

“Oh my! Strong words from Nico Leftiè! Before we turn the questioning over to our lovely viewers, I want to ask about your love life. You’ve always been notoriously secretive, but you’ve also been linked to a few famous names over the years. We’ve heard scattered rumors of some mystery man you’ve been seen with over the past few months. Who is this handsome new beau?”

Nico, shocked the banal host was violating a basic tenant of her non-confrontational program, struggled to maintain her assumed composure, “I’m not particularly interested in discussing my private life. But thank you for asking. Now if we could turn back to the Anacostia project…”

“Not even a hint?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is a relevant subject, let’s move on, shall we?”

Looking to her producers, who were apoplectic at her ad-lib probing, Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith changed tact, “Oh well. Let’s go to the phones then! We’re getting a lot of interest in your project, Ms. Leftiè. Here’s Joe from Denver with a question on investing. Joe, you’re on the air! Go ahead!”

A crackling, tinny voice filled the studio, “Hello? Should I talk now?”

“Yes Joe,” the hostess replied, “You’re talking to us now. Please ask your question.”

“Okay, thanks. Ms. Leftiè, I understand you invest in worthy projects around the world. I currently run a small knife sales company based out of Denver and we’re looking to expand our sales area down to Colorado Springs and Pueblo. All we need is around $100,000 to set up a basic…”

“Joe, do you have a question?” Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith asked in a noticeably harsher tone.

“Yeah, hold on, sweetheart. Anyways, we just need $100,000 for movement costs and an increased…” The phone abruptly cut off

“Rats! We seem to have lost Joe there. While we try to get him back we’ll move on to the next caller! This is Diane from Massachusetts with a question about investment.”

Nico looked peevishly from the serene hostess to the panicked producers, now curled into fetal positions just off camera.

After four mysteriously disconnected calls discussing exciting investment opportunities, the hostess finally announced, “Our next caller is Christian from right here in D.C. with a question on your dance career and future plans, Christian?”

“I’m here, Barbara.” A pleasant voice responded and Nico smiled with relief.

Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith continued, “Please go ahead with your question.”

“Happily,” the voice responded, “Ms. Leftiè, how are you?”

“I suppose I’m doing fine, how are you?”

“Very well, thank you. It’s nice to talk to you again, by the way.”

“Again? I’m very sorry, but I don’t remember meeting anyone named Christian recently. I apologize. Where did we meet?” Nico spoke with a growing unease as she looked at the leering face across from her.

“Yes, Christian, where did you meet Ms. Leftiè? Please tell us,” Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith trilled.

“I’m surprised you don’t remember your humble waiter from Busboys and Poets. It was such an eventful meal.”

Nico stood up in shock, but quickly regained her senses and retook her seat. In the calmest voice her terrified mind could muster, she responded, “Yes, I’ve eaten at Busboys multiple times. It’s a great spot. I’m sorry I didn’t remember you. Now, unfortunately I have to be going to…”

Christian cut in, “You’re right; you’ve eaten there, which is nice to know. But even more interesting is who you were there with. Now if I remember correctly on that specific occasion you were in the company of my former coworker, Raymond Clock.”

Nico maintained a stoic, inscrutable countenance. Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith did not follow suit, but rather exclaimed in a faux-shocked, high-decibel tone, “Oh my! Is that known SVC terrorist, Raymond Clock?”

“The very same! When I knew him he was serving at Busboys. Something always seemed a bit odd about him, but I had no idea of the true depths of his perversion.”

“That’s enough! I’ll not sit here and listen to this nonsense. I came here to discuss an important project with the potential to help develop our most in-need communities, not gossip about someone I barely knew with some random people!”

“Ms. Leftiè!” the WASP-y host was hyperventilating with sudden outrage, her face contorting into the universal grotesque of vehement moral certitude, “The SVC threat is real! And we here at Wake Up! With Babs! have confirmation from another source who saw you in the company of both Raymond Clock AND Asher Rose, illicit lover of THE Chandra Sen.” When she used Chandra’s name, the host spat on the periwinkle carpeting.

With surreal calm, Nico looked to the producers and said, “I need you to remedy this situation right now.”

The frantic men cut the feed and tossed up a rerun of Mrs. O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith interviewing a pack of ocelots.

“You’re fired.” Nico informed the disturbingly gleeful Barbara O’MalleyConnerSmithermanSmith.

With that, Nico stormed out of the building with half-a-dozen network executives executing an impotent mobile kowtow behind her.

She entered her car in a fury, but after the door closed her mind turned inward.

As her driver navigated the complicated, meandering route to the first safe house/vehicle transfer site, Nico’s consciousness berated itself for its naiveté.  She’d been so focused on the success of her project she’d lost sight of other events swirling around her.

This had always been her weakness, she admitted to herself in the backseat. Whenever she pursued a project her mind was so intensely bent towards the triumph of completion that she disregarded parts of the unique contexts she found herself within. Nico justified her exclusionary mindset with a truth; her projects had the end goal of systemic change, however eventual or gradual that change might be. The scale of the work, coupled with its social development roots, allowed her to feel satisfied that she was doing everything in her power to fulfill her obligations to humanity.

“Now, but now, what does this mean?” her mind asked. If DeMasters was correct, and if exposure led to the devastation of Anacostia by the anti-SVC hordes, she’d failed and, in fact, acted as a destructive force within the march of human progress.

Nico had made a mistake. She’d been warned by a demonstrably intelligent person, a person she respected, and chose to ignore the advice. The blame lay with her, and she must accept the consequences.

However, Nico thought as her vehicle sat idling in midday D.C. traffic, if she took this defeat as the end of her career and retreated from her attempts to improve the world, she’d be an even greater failure. While it was her initial impulse to give up on the world, withdrawing in wounded and aggrieved bitterness, she couldn’t accept this as the best course of action. Even if each of her projects failed spectacularly, she couldn’t justify ceasing their creation. Instead of failure serving as a stimulus for the cessation of activity, she thought to herself happily, her failures should act as a stimulus to try harder. Mistakes only increased her debt to society.

This is where DeMasters is wrong, Nico thought. Failing and giving up on your society as hopeless was foolish. Society may be hopeless, but it was their society and they, each and every human being, had an absolute and unquestionable obligation to improve it as much as was within their power.

It was late evening by the time Nico stumbled into this line of thinking. Her car had just reached Anacostia, having had to shake two or three tails and endure an assault by an angry motorist who decided to discharge a firearm into her windows rather than file a formal complaint as the professional car’s bumper sticker recommended.

Nico first noticed the glow of the fire as she was crossing the river. Smoke undulated across the orange sunset in graceful plumes, each column building on another as they soared and dissipated into the atmosphere. As the car crept further into the ravaged district, the sky was filled with the ashes of her work eddying around and through the blown out windows of the car. Their pace slowed to a crawl as they picked their way through the torch wielding mobs and flaming rubble.

Nico remained hidden, huddled under blankets in the backseat and quivering with a fear she told herself emanated from a concern the mob would further inconvenience her unflappable driver by igniting the vehicle. As Nico rested face up, covering everything but her sight, she witnessed the crimson flames licking the remnants of the sign outside the APACT, emblazoned with the fading words “Anacostia Ballet Presents.” She felt a moment of weakness watching the fires consume her dreams and acknowledged a resurgent desire to quit this disquieting state of caring about society.

“No, I’m not finished, and I never will be.” Nico whispered to herself.

“What’s that, Ma’am?” Her driver called back.

“Nothing, Bill. Just talking to myself. Are we almost there? I can’t tell from here.”

“Yes Ma’am, we’re here,” Bill replied, bringing the vehicle to a gentle stop, “But it looks like they got the Inn as well.”

“I see, well let’s pull around back, into the side alley there,” Nico pointed, sitting up and instructing him calmly,

“Yes Ma’am,” Bill replied again as he slid the vehicle into the opaque air of the smoke-filled alley.

High-powered beams of light hit the billowing wall of gas and disappeared into its density barely four feet from their source. The encased machine crept through the suffocating, shifting blackness, eventually finding the corner of the building where Nico ordered Bill to stop. She ran out of the car and into the burning building. There was no sign of Nooroozeleff, Jackqualenya, or any others from the sparse staff in the flame-filled lobby. The stairs, though alight, seemed stable enough to bear her weight. She vaulted up their length and rushed down the hallway to the two rooms the group occupied. Bursting through the roaring flames, Nico called Raymond’s name.

Stepping out next to her from inside a coat closet near the entrance, Asher replied placidly, “It took you long enough. Your shirt’s on fire.”

Seeing the truth of his words, Nico promptly stopped, dropped, and rolled. Unfortunately, the inferno cure-all proved ineffective on this occasion as the surface on which she was dropping and rolling was also on fire.

“Nico? What are you doing? Let’s go!” Raymond called, following Chandra and Asher out from the cramped, choking space.

The entire group, their clothing aflame, fled from the building to extinguish the remnants of their tattered and charred outerwear on the non-blazing concrete.

“Sorry, I was trying to be as discrete as possible in my route home, but I guess it didn’t really matter…” Nico apologized for her tardiness. “Why in heaven’s name were you all in that closet?”

“We were in a bit of a panic after your interview. The mobs came too quickly.” Chandra explained.

“Didn’t you have your go-bags packed? We could have just met at the safe house! I just came back here to see…”

Asher replied in annoyance, “Of course Chandra and I had our bags packed. It seems our friend Raymond, however, thought we were safe and eschewed that particular area of preparation.”

“Hey, look, I already apologized at least a dozen times back in the closet, I just thought…”

Laughing wearily, Asher cut him off, “Whatever, I’m joking and it doesn’t matter anyways. We need to go.”

They stumbled over to the idling luxury vehicle and loaded it with their charred luggage. Happy to be actively fleeing rather than passively hiding, the group set off. However the car had not moved more than five feet before a figure emerged from the obscurations, caught in their headlights like a protruding rock maliciously intent on scuttling their ship.

“Excuse us,” Bill the driver called through the shattered windshield.

“No. You are not excused,” A deep, trembling baritone called back.

Recognizing the voice, Raymond leapt out of the vehicle, “Dr. DeMasters! You need to come with us to our safe house! We need to get out of here!”

“I won’t be going anywhere and neither will you,” DeMasters answered coldly, moving closer to the vehicle, his features increasingly visible and amplified into bizarre, shifting proportions by the chaotic lighting.

“I…But we need to get out of here!” Raymond repeated in confusion, “I understand you’re most likely extremely upset and disagree with the course of action we decided to take, but we can debate that point later! We have to go before they find us!”

DeMasters roared back, “Sometimes I wish violence still existed so I could rip you apart myself. You’re filth! You’re do-gooder filth destroying lives without regrets, justifying your mistakes, and then moving on to the next ‘worthwhile’ project. You don’t care the people you left behind are real. Real, breathing, living people who you’ve destroyed with your mistakes and experiments. You don’t understand that when you miscalculate on this scale, people suffer. This isn’t just some philosophical discussion in a classroom. But you don’t care, because all you’re really after is a way to justify an increase in the size of your own ego.”

Nico stepped out of the vehicle, “Now, look, I understand we made a mistake, but if we stop trying now…”

“You!” Dr. Francis DeMasters screamed, overcome with a blood rage, overwhelming his senses as he lunged forward; reverting to mankind’s natural state.

Raymond, who, intellectually, knew nothing could come from this; whose brain understood, mechanically, that Dr. DeMasters could not inflict any sort of violence on Nico whatsoever, and who, even in a world in which violence existed, decried its use and proclaimed himself a devout pacifist, responded with his own primordial instinct and moved to intercept the rampaging social justice warrior.

“No!” Raymond called as he repelled DeMasters’ assault, shoving the intellectual backwards. Surprised by the unexpected force slamming into his chest, the great thinker stumbled backwards, off balance, tripped over the curb, and split open his skull as it accelerated with gravity and encountered the pavement.

Raymond stared at his work. He looked back to Nico, who appeared terrified. Asher and Chandra now left the vehicle, with Chandra moving over to the fallen form of DeMasters.

“He is dead,” Chandra pronounced.

“He’s dead? He is dead? Raymond…how is he dead?” Asher asked, looking around in confusion.

“I…how did that happen? I don’t understand. It shouldn’t…but…how?” Raymond was collapsing.

Chandra seized the situation, “There’s no time. Get his body to the trunk and let’s go.”

“…Yes. Yes. Okay.” Asher, still shaking, dragged the limp body containing the pre-eminent mind of their time to the back of the vehicle and tossed it in the trunk with their burnt luggage.

They loaded back into the car and departed for their designated safe-house in silence.

Raymond sat in the back of the car, driven by Nico’s loyal executive assistant, as it left behind the frenzied crowds and swelling fires. Raymond’s mind raced through justifications, but one thought dominated his mind; he’d done something irrefutably real.

[1] Though the performance explored the human experience with visceral, existential fear, it would be advertised as an out of season performance of The Nutcracker. With assistance from her team of world-renowned choreographers, Nico had carefully constructed her masterpiece; a work that would usher in an au courant dance movement that reflected the heartbeat of the world. The performance would begin with three spotlights centered on a closed, heavy blue velvet curtain. Then, fifteen minutes of deafening analog industrial-electronic drone music pumped out of the new, custom-made Transmission Audio Ultimate speaker system. The music would suddenly stop and Nico, dressed in a skin-tight skin-tone lycra suit that stretched from the peak of her skull to the termination of her toes, would step from behind the curtain and face the audience. She’d freeze in place for two minutes of silence, at which point a piercing, pre-recorded scream would play through the new, custom-made Transmission Audio Ultimate speaker system. The screech would act as a signal to the lycra-ensconced Nico to leap from the stage into the center aisle of the theater. From there, she would sprint out the back doors of the hall where the tech crew would be waiting to slam all entrances closed and lock them as soon as she was through. Once the exits were secured, the lights would go out and the audience would be subjected to three hours of increasingly loud harsh noise compilations in complete darkness. Cell phone collection points set up in the name of “respect for the arts” outside the hall before the show would ensure each guest who elected to participate would be as helpless and hopeless as possible. At the end of three hours of what the creative team hoped would be increasing panic and desperation, the music would stop, the lights would come on, and Nico would step out to take what was sure to be an astounding ovation from the transformed patrons.

[2] With violence and terror no longer an option to keep their populations in check, this last class had been an especially popular breed of guest over the past six months.

[3] Also putting her mind at ease on this occasion was the fact that she owned a significant stake in the building and everything in it.

[4] The focus groups responded more positively to the random, disjointed, often inappropriate or awkward questions asked by their peers than the prepared and researched questions asked by the professional host.

The Pile – Chapter Ten

Much to the collective’s surprise and disappointment, the world did not descend into chaos. Asher had misjudged humanity. Rather than reverting back to Pre-GCD madness, humanity now had a villain to demonize. The group was labeled “Spirit of Violence Crazies” by a hostile press, something Nico had little control over without risking the possibility of revealing her involvement. The beleaguered association decided to usurp the phrase by calling themselves “Spirit of Violence Believers,” taking advantage of the growing popularity of the label. While Asher admitted it wasn’t much, he believed it might help mildly muddy the issue in the minds of an uneducated public.

Raymond still didn’t actually believe in the Spirit of Violence, but he knew it was for the greater good when he publicly expressed solidarity; a united front in the face of mass hysteria. What he lacked in belief he made up for in his passion for change. He focused his creative energy on writing columns on future governmental and social structures in a world shaped by Chandra Sen’s monumental discoveries. Acting as a singular bastion for dissent, Modern Issue continued to pump out articles arguing the SVB case.

Though hacking attempts were frequent, their high-capacity servers and enhanced protection proved more than capable of handling any digital incursions. Anticipating a certain level of blowback prior to Chandra’s testimony, Asher hired an elite Russian hacker named Sergei777[1], an acquaintance from Moscow, to provide additional layers of security. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the technophilic Russian, Modern Issue remained active and intact.

While Chandra, Asher, and Raymond were all named and shamed “SVCs”, Nico’s affiliation with the movement remained a secret, allowing her to continue with her rapidly advancing Anacostia redevelopment venture. Her association with SVB ideals was a great liability for the young heiress, and she stressed the extreme importance of confidentiality to the entire group. They each solemnly swore to take every precaution to protect her identity. This presented a number of problems for Nico and Raymond’s relationship, but the idea that they were putting the greater good in front of their own desires filled them with immense personal pride.

Construction was now moving swiftly thanks to Nico’s decision to hire every firm in the metro area to complete the project by its September 1st public unveiling. Temporary housing for the displaced residents of Anacostia consisted of tasteful tower blocks. It was to these towers that Nico had convinced the vast majority of the district’s population to relocate. By promising luxury apartments and lofts at dramatically reduced rent prices, she ensured consent was abundant.  But Nico’s passion remained the APACT, which would serve as the cultural anchor for the revitalized community when complete.

During the same period, Raymond was too busy to acknowledge the neurosis encroaching on his happiness. With Asher’s output further reduced by his anger at humanity’s response to Chandra’s revelation, the preponderance of work fell on Raymond’s shoulders. For the first time in their friendship, Raymond found himself consoling and counseling Asher while doing his work for him.

This blunder was Asher’s first consequential mistake. Chandra’s testimony and the subsequent announcements to the media had been penned entirely by Asher. Upon reflection, however, Mr. Rose realized he’d made huge mistake. Asher determined they should have let the information slip as an anonymous government leak rather than massive public press releases and op-eds in support of the Spirit of Violence theory[2].

Asher cried to Raymond that this was the method he should have used and his mistake had been, once again, overestimating the intelligence of the masses. Raymond empathized as best he could, telling Asher he knew how it felt to make a mistake of such a magnitude and that he’d also experienced the spiraling state of second-guessing that infected the brain in a bad decision’s aftermath.

“But,” Raymond continued to Asher, “At least one good thing came out of this boondoggle; we’ll never take humanity’s capacity for poor reasoning and decision making for granted again.”

Framing it as having increased their collective erudition did cheer Asher slightly; though he continued to struggle with content production. He questioned everything he wrote and felt a necessity to run ideas by others before publishing.

After hitting a low point in terms of readership prior to Chandra’s testimony, Modern Issue, as the sole voice championing the SVB cause, saw an uptick in traffic. Though the majority of their new devotees were part of the conspiracy theory and cult circuit[3], a number of prominent business leaders, philosophers, and scientists quietly voiced their support. This support was minimal, however, particularly after a leading journalist penned a pro-SVB opinion piece in a major newspaper and the paper’s offices and writer’s home were subsequently razed.

Fortunately, Modern Issue’s own headquarters was known only to a few key government personnel and their loyal hired goons with security clearances. The Red Roof Inn was so far unscathed, much to the surprise of the collective. They’d anticipated the need to relocate immediately following the hearing, but had, so far, not heard so much as an ominous creak of the floorboards. Nico warned Nooroozeleff of the situation and assured him she would pay five times the value of any damages his business suffered.

Each member kept a go-bag in the event they needed to beat a hasty retreat, and Asher requested one of Nico’s temporary housing quarters to serve as a safe house. Nico flatly denied this request out of fear the tower would be the next target. Instead, the group purchased a few small, undistinguished houses scattered across Arlington and Alexandria. Their luck continued, however, and no one appeared to burn them out.

Beyond desperately producing content for Modern Issue while attempting to repair Asher’s bruised ego, Raymond maintained his weekly meetings with Dr. DeMasters. These meetings were increasingly focused on the topic Nico’s redevelopment plans, which highly concerned DeMasters.

The former civil rights activist acted as a counterbalance in Raymond’s life. Whenever the group made a decision, Raymond ran the idea through DeMasters and gauged his response. The naked ambitions of Raymond’s collective felt trite as it broke on the rocks of DeMasters’ intellect.

This troubled Raymond. Though he disagreed with Dr. DeMasters’ decision to abandon the world to the wolves, the man’s reasoning for doing so was sound. It was reasonable to assume, especially in light of Raymond’s recent experiences, that mankind was incapable of making intelligent, collective, long-term decisions. DeMasters held that only an absolute, enlightened dictator could solve humanity’s problems. However, as he’d spent his life fighting for freedom and civil liberties, DeMasters was adamantly opposed to dictatorship. When he’d agreed to join the collective’s proposed administration[4], it was with the assurance that they would only take power through influencing a democratic election.

The world needed to change, but humanity was incapable of changing on its own. DeMasters refused to support coercing the public into a desired behavioral pattern as he believed this would reduce humanity to chattel. These conflicting ideals forced DeMasters to resign his philosophy to nihilism, a stance Raymond rejected but understood.

The only remnant of activism remaining within DeMasters was his desire to protect those in his immediate surroundings; the people in Anacostia he’d mentally adopted as his brothers and sisters in suffering and inanity. These people were now at risk due to Nico’s meddling.

By mid-August, three weeks after Chandra’s testimony, the Anacostia Revitalization Project was nearing completion, society’s hatred of SVCs reached a fever pitch, and Demasters’ discontentment peaked.

At the conclusion of their previous meeting, Dr. DeMasters requested Raymond bring Nico along to the shabby apartment atop Francis Sublime’s Computer Exchange Warehouse. When Raymond relayed DeMasters’ invitation, she was hesitant, being fully aware of the man’s objections to her project. Raymond, however, insisted they’d only talk about ideas, and surmised they might come up with some novel strategies for implementation. Acknowledging how much she valued DeMasters’ opinion, she eventually agreed to come.

Nico chiseled out a two hour block in her schedule for an early dinner, shifting a meeting with her choreography team to the right. Raymond went ahead of her to the apartment to prevent suspicion that he and Nico Leftiè were traveling together. She arrived on time, twenty minutes after Raymond, at Francis DeMasters’s sparsely furnished abode. Walking towards the two men already engaged in conversation, Nico noted the gaps in the ill-fitting wooden floorboards and the shiver of the ceiling beams as tenants on the floor above performed their daily routine. She could make this better, she thought as she reached the conversing men and DeMasters handed her a bowl of cup noodles.

“They’re shrimp flavored,” he said unnecessarily. The bold, crimson block lettering emblazoned on the side of her bowl clearly stated the character of the sodium within.

“Thank you, Dr. DeMasters. I hope you’re not offended if I don’t eat. I’m currently in the midst of a strict training regimen for my performance at APACT.” Nico said as she placed her bowl on a nearby counter.

“You’re performance requires fasting?” DeMasters inquired as he motioned for the assemblage to take their seats on the lumpy, derelict furniture populating the room.

Sitting, Nico explained, “Well, in the dance world the shape of the body is of vital importance. Each movement and motion is dependent on the lines and forms my body takes. So crafting your body into a precisely desired shape is crucial for success.”

“That sounds like a clever excuse to accept body image abuse and eating disorders,” DeMasters said, “Isn’t each performance unique? Doesn’t each performer bring a distinct presence to the stage? Conforming the body to a defined aesthetic standard detracts from the character of the performance.”

“In some cases I can see your point, but fine art has always required…” Nico began.

DeMasters cut her off, “Nothing. Nothing in Art requires anything. I would rather see healthy, whole human beings express their feelings and ideas through a creative and talented performance than cookie-cutter automatons adhering to the narrow definition of ‘Art’ promoted by an inbred sect of historical elites. Though who can blame them; they’re desperate to use their cloak of ‘high culture’ to mask the lack of creativity and innovation rampant within their cloistered caste, high in their unassailable towers of aesthetic privilege. From their vantage point, they look down on other forms of art and culture with disdain, occasionally taking well-funded colonial trips outside their hallowed walls to commandeer the talents and motifs of some exotic external wildlife to prove they’re revolutionizing ‘Art.’ When African Art is merely art made by people from the continent of Africa, it’s primitive and compartmentalized. But when African Art is claimed by these erudite souls serving the lord of high aesthetic sensibilities and incorporated into their designs, it becomes extraordinary and world class. ‘A brilliant amalgamation,’ fusing their sacred ‘Art’ with themes of exoticism. As the arbiters of appropriate taste, of course they know how to wield African Art better than plebian African creators. ‘Thanks for the ideas, savages; now we don’t need you.’ It’s the same story that’s been told countless times since the first men looked at one another’s skin and decided one had a superior pigmentation. “

Following the lecture, the room fell into an uncomfortable silence. Nico spoke after waiting with frustration for an ambivalent Raymond to respond, “I see your point. But did you really ask me here today to talk about the obvious faults found in the art world and how it impacts my body image?”

“No, just making small talk while I finish my noodles,” DeMasters joked as he drained his bowl, “I asked you here today to beg you to stop your revitalization project. Stop right now and leave Anacostia.”

Both Nico and Raymond were shocked. It was Raymond who recovered his voice first, “Dr. DeMasters! What do you mean? The project is practically finished. How could we stop something that’s already done?”

“Just leave. Anacostia is used to half-finished, abandoned buildings. We’ll manage. What we’re not used to is imported culture and unwanted media attention.”

Nico shook herself free from her stunned expression. She knew this argument and was prepared, “Dr. DeMasters, I understand you’re sensitive to the idea of gentrification and cultural imperialism, but I’ve gone through a very rigorous and thorough process to guarantee the excesses of gentrification do not affect this district. I own almost every piece of property and I’m the one who decides the rent prices and businesses I allow. I’m preparing to make the citizens of Anacostia the entrepreneurs of each and every business.”

DeMasters countered, “And I understand the precautions you believe you took. But that does not change the fact that you’re still importing an outside culture that’ll dominate and destroy the local culture of Anacostia.

“What local culture?” Nico fought back passionately, “Any local culture Anacostia had was already destroyed by a lack of capital, the gutting of every local business, and the systematic repression inflicted on this community. How does the local culture survive when one out of every three males expects to go to jail? How does it survive when an entrepreneur can’t secure a bank loan because no bank lends to this zip code? I’m not replacing the culture; I’m revitalizing and empowering the citizens with the capacity to choose the direction of their own life.”

“Well aren’t you just the beautiful savior of us poor black folk then,” DeMasters mocked.

“No, I’m not a savior, but I’m committed to helping. And if that means accepting your scorn and the label of imperialistic bitch with a savior complex, than I’m perfectly willing to accept it. But I believe the people of this district will be better off for my contributions.”

“Not if you bring the anti-SVC forces down on their heads!” DeMasters growled at her, exposing his true objections to her presence.

Nico was halted mid-utterance. Raymond responded in her stead, “Dr. DeMasters, no one knows Nico is an SVB. And she really isn’t even; she’s just like me. We just support Asher and Chandra.”

DeMasters continued, directing his comments towards Nico, “No one knows for now, but what would happen to this grand project of yours if they did? You’ve put your name and label all over Anacostia. As you said, ‘You will revitalize and empower the citizens’. You. This is the Nico Leftiè district now. It will be the first thing that burns if you’re outed.”

Nico looked pensive, considering DeMasters’ words, so Raymond continued, “Well we’ve been exceedingly careful to distance ourselves. We’re not together publicly, we travel separately, and whenever I assist her with her project, I only work with her closest staff, other SVBs, and people she trusts. There’s no reason to believe she’ll be outed.“

“You’re naïve. Haven’t you been paying attention to what’s going on in this nation? Exposed SVBs are being thrown into the street and publicly lynched, figuratively. Their entire lives are destroyed by these rampaging mobs. It’s an insatiable frenzy that’ll continue to consume until there’s no one left to destroy. People are angry and confused and they can’t use personal violence to vent. Once they run out of the most obvious targets they’ll begin searching. You’ll be found.”

Raymond remained optimistic, “Chandra’s the ‘Reverend Mother of Violence,’ or whatever that silly label is, and we haven’t been found yet. She’s the most obvious target, but no one has betrayed us. We’ll find a way to turn this situation around.”

“It’s just a matter of time,” DeMasters warned.

Nico finally broke her silence, “I can’t think like that; why would we think like that? I’m sorry you failed in trying to achieve your vision, Dr. DeMasters, but not everything fails. We’re doing everything possible to protect ourselves from identification, and I believe it will be enough.”

DeMasters grew angry, his volume rising, “It’s not just your project or yourself you’re risking! You’re putting every person who lives here are risk! People who never asked you to come in and meddle will be punished, losing what little they have, because of your arrogance.”

“I think I’m finished talked about this. Thank you for expressing your concerns, Dr. Demasters. Any further questions can be directed to my secretary or relayed through Raymond.”

Nico walked out, leaving Raymond alone with his hero.

“You have to convince her to leave, Raymond. You can’t risk all these people,” DeMasters implored him.

“I…I can’t,” Raymond said, “I don’t know if you’re right. I understand and agree with you…I think. But I also think Nico’s project is good and important. If it’s successful we can use it as a pattern to redevelop…”

“Get out. If you can’t see the harm you’re doing you need to get out of my home. You’ve proven you only pay lip service to those ideals you blabber about. You’re just another white man.” DeMasters turned his back on Raymond.

Unsteadily at first, Raymond left the apartment feeling as if his soul had been ripped from his body.

Blind to direction, Raymond stumbled through the steaming summer alleys. It’d been months since Raymond last wandered alone, absorbed in his own thoughts. Modern Issue and their collective schemes had kept him busy, and the need for secrecy in his relationship had prevented him from participating in his beloved after dinner strolls with Nico.

Anacostia was unrecognizable. The dilapidated, rotting structures had been replaced by new-wave art deco influenced buildings. “Nostalgia for the future” as Nico had described the architectural motif. Raymond observed the stark modernity of the edifices latticed with enough frills and ornamentation to embarrass William Van Alen. He remembered the crumbling buildings and barren retail landscape from just a few months prior. Maybe this was better. When he acknowledged he felt a certain charm in the authenticity of the dilapidation, thinking so made him feel like an intolerable tourist. Progress comes from all directions and an incalculable variety of sources. He told himself he shouldn’t discount Nico’s plan due to aesthetic qualms or his stereotypically imperialistic desires to see “The Natives” in their natural habitat. DeMasters, as much as Raymond loved and respected the man, was wrong. He’d given up hope of progress and settled into his own obscurity. He’d lost his vision, and therefore only saw Nico as a threat to his personal indolence.

Raymond rounded a corner in his justifications and found himself in undeveloped territory. This was a street waiting to be destroyed and made anew.

Experienced in the context of the sheen varnishing the rest of the district, the houses here felt more human. Flickering streetlamps illuminated cracks and crags scarring the buildings, giving them each a grotesque uniqueness that leered out towards Raymond as he ambled by. They were the hands of Metropolis to the mind Nico had created. “Was he the heart?” Raymond asked himself, immediately feeling pretentious and foolish. He reminded himself he was looking at run down crack-dens that would soon be demolished to make way for something reasonable people could inhabit.

Passing one of the peeling structures, Raymond noticed a light coming from within. Momentarily forgetting how inhibition felt, Raymond left the sidewalk to investigate. He’d always fancied himself an urban explorer limited by the realities of race, crime rates, and his own neuroses. But removing the prospect of violence from the equation freed him and expanded his exploration potential. Raymond would see something he knew to be authentic.

As he ascended, he happily noted the broken steps of the stoop and fractured concrete archway. The door was open. Of course it was, Raymond thought, why would it be locked? The rest of the world buys locks to keep these types of places out. What do these decaying corners of humanity try to keep out?

Walking into the darkened entrance, he was met with the stench of urine and mildew. The air was choking, forcing him to breathe in measured bursts. He struck a balance between his brain’s need for oxygen and his senses revolt against breathing the foul air. His diminished oxygen intake left him slightly light-headed and confused, adding to the surreal feeling engulfing him. He was watching himself watch himself creep forward, aware of his own awareness; his out-of-body experience observed by an in-body perception. This made him hyper-conscious of each movement and thought, reacting and adjusting to the real-time judgments he knew he was making about himself.

The floorboards, reminding him of DeMasters’ small room, creaked, threatening to break and plummet his body into the unlit terror he’d find below. He supposed it was of some comfort to know he couldn’t be hurt and die, but he wondered if he could become trapped. That sounded even worse. He shuddered and advanced as quietly as the tenuous wood allowed.

Raymond wondered why anyone would still choose to live in this filthy hovel given Nico’s offer to accommodate the entirety of the district in her well-furnished temporary towers. But he figured the murkier side of life always sought appropriate surroundings to conduct its business. Though, Raymond thought bleakly, these places contained only trivially tragic instances of personal destruction.

The real horror in life is decided over expensive conference tables or thousand-dollar-meals. That type of destruction is too systematized to ever be considered as classically tragic as the broken down souls haunting civilization’s varied ruins.

He supposed these universally told morality tales served an important purpose. Humans need the destruction of others in order to define their own happiness. It’s like how the economies of supposedly developed societies are built on outsourced exploitation; they tell themselves someone has to suffer so someone else can survive, and they do survive so well. The definition of survive they’ve come to accept as a minimum standard lacks the important qualifier “to survive at a higher comfort level than someone else.”

An individual can be helped or despised or mourned, but humanity is incapable of doing the same for itself for the simple fact that it’s incapable of considering itself a consolidated entity. It’s all just tribes and levels of separation. When human beings decide they’re individualized entities, it allows for the contextualization of their personal suffering in the shadow of the suffering experienced by someone they consider an “other.”

Instead of taking restorative steps to address communal suffering as a shared experience and shared responsibility, this act of cognitive delineation graciously affords the privileged a modicum of happiness and relief. The separation acts as a veil to create illusory relational happiness, and contentment becomes impossible without this comparative context. So the sweat shop worker not only serves as a drone to mass produce to meet the consumption requirements of the wealthy, but also exists as a benchmark from which a civilized nation can define its relative happiness.

Raymond’s mind was wrenched back to perceive his present surroundings by the hiss of whispered voices slinking down to him from the second floor.

“Thou cans’t be sure, Constantine. Mine eyes hath seeneth a law enforcement official,” an unknown voice hissed in a nasally tenor.

“And Thou art a coward. I shall findeth the causeth of thy trepidation mine own self,” a second voice, one Raymond assumed belonged to Constantine, replied tersely.

Feeling a flicker of fear, but instantly angry with myself for allowing this irrational and probably racist impulse, Raymond stood at the base of the dry, wooden staircase. Footsteps approached the top of the structure and began to descend.

Constantine saw Raymond through the darkness at the halfway point and yelled in a startled voice, “Whoeth arteth thoueth?”

Raymond responded in a way he hoped sounded respectful, polite, non-judgmental, casual, and friendly, “Hello again! Do you remember me? I believe we met a few months ago in a store. I’m Raymond. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

Constantine looked suspicious, “Art thou a member of the band of folk purchasingeth the whole of this hereth Anacostia?”

Raymond briefly oscillated on the proper response to this question. On one side, his brain told him he had to distance himself from Nico and couldn’t take the chance of their relationship becoming known. Alternatively, lying to this man would be disrespectful and condescending. Dr. DeMasters’ words rang in his head; he’d just be another white man trying to take advantage of the ignorance he assumed this poor black man possessed. Alternatively to that, however, were his thoughts as to whether it was racist for him to view this conversation in terms of race in the first place. Wasn’t he just a human being talking to another human being? If he didn’t lie to the man, it would actually be more racist and more condescending because he was treating Constantine differently than he’d treat a white person. But at the same time, if he did try to view this as just a human-to-human interaction, he’d be ignoring the long history of repression and subjugation black people had suffered.

Raymond was rescued from his dilemma by Constantine’s memory, “Now I remembereth thou and thy ilk. Twas your lily soul in the company ofeth two wealthy Orientals. The She-Oriental iseth the one changingeth our humble Anacostia, iseth she not? She hath sought to purchaseth my abode…but I shall not sell as long aseth I draweth breath!”

Raymond sensed a sensitive issue; something this man took pride in taking a stand on. He proceeded with curious caution, “That is understandable. You shared this home with your partner, didn’t you?”

Constantine looked at Raymond in disgust, “Doeth not attempteth to empathize with mine self! Thine manipulations will not availeth thy objective. Thou canst leave andeth telleth thy mistress my position remains unchanged,” he turned to ascend the stairs.

Raymond, panicking as he realized how this visit must appear to Constantine, hurriedly offered his apologies, “No! No! I’m sorry! I’m not here representing her. I’ve nothing to do with that project. I was just walking and wandered in here. I wanted to see…”

Constantine stopped, “Dost thou haveth money?”

Raymond grabbed his wallet, “I…I’ve got like $50.”

“Handeth it over andeth thou canst ascend and partaketh.”

Raymond was confused but too embarrassed and desperate to distance himself from Constantine’s previous interpretation of Raymond’s character to refuse. He handed the bills to the gaunt hand and followed him up the stairs.

Down a fetid hallway with rotting plaster walls into a room barely lit by the yellow gleam of streetlamps seeping in from the only non-boarded-up window and a small desk lamp with a base shaped like the twisting form of a hula dancer, Constantine led Raymond. Sprawled on the floor was a small, wrinkled, dark-skinned gentleman with frayed and frazzled wiry grey hair. This new man looked at Raymond in fright and, still on the ground, backed himself into the darkest corner of the room.

“Who hath thou brought, Constantine? Whoeth iseth this man?”

“Calmeth thy manner, Solomon. He hath paid his way andeth will joineth our indulgence.”

“Though hath takeneth yonder snowflake’s payment? Whateth if he be police?”

“I hath knowledge of the man,” Constantine insisted dismissively while grabbing a soiled plastic bag containing a small number of white cubes resting near Solomon, “Dost thou knoweth thy way?”

Raymond’s eyes grew wide when he saw the bag of crack cocaine. He berated himself for filling the role of naïve dilettante. If he was seen as an outsider at this juncture he’d never be allowed to connect to these men in any meaningful way. If Raymond wished to fully immerse himself in this experience, it wouldn’t be enough to talk to these cracked-out fellows from his own perspective; he needed to make them feel that he was one of them. They needed to believe he understood their lives and that he wasn’t just some white, imperialistic tourist. He was a human being who fully empathized with their personal suffering.

But Raymond really did not want to do crack. The most extreme drug he’d allowed himself was marijuana a few times in college. Though he enjoyed the experience immensely, he was also aware of the prohibitions on drug use within the proper society that jealously guarded the gates of power. He’d made the conscious choice to abstain from using substances altering his perception of the world. While Raymond appreciated the perspective a different chemical composition might give him on life, he felt an intense desire to remain clearly cognizant in his original frame of reference. He simply could not justify the personal indulgence of chemical bliss when child soldiers were being pressed into the service of genocidal warlords in the Democratic People’s Banana Republic Presents the People’s Choice Nation of Haiti[5].

Turning down offers for harder drugs had been fairly easy in the past; he’d justify missing the life experience by telling himself he was having a much more unique moment by hanging out with heroin addicts while not actually doing heroin himself. Who else could say that? Raymond would think. His short lapse in judgment during his dark days waiting for Nico and his decision to take lithium had only served to strengthen his position on the issue.

But this was not the same as turning down the trust fund brigade when they offered their drug of choice; these were real people and this was a genuine experience. If he were to turn Constantine down, they’d see Raymond as the stereotypically conservative, inexperienced white amateur Raymond feared being labeled above all else. In their eyes he dreaded being viewed as another moon-eyed, know-nothing imperialist dabbling in the idea of “slumming it.” Raymond was horrified at the thought, but still really, really didn’t want to do crack.

Thinking quickly, Raymond stumbled into a solution, “Oh…oh shit. I…I know I paid, but I really shouldn’t. You know…my family had a bad problem with the stuff…my sister she…” he trailed off deliberately.

Constantine looked at him skeptically, “Thou are’t from a family of addicts?”

Raymond continued “It got really bad and my parents kicked my sister out before she…It got really bad for a while…I don’t think I should.”

Lowering the bag, Constantine looked at Raymond sympathetically, “If thou art cleaneth, thou should’st stayeth so. Mayhaps thyself twoulst benefit mosteth by exuenting from mine presence. I haveth not the will nor desire to stoppeth mine own habit.”

“Oh, actually I think this is a good test for me. It strengthens my resolve. I want to be able to endure being around the stuff without giving in.”

“If thou insisteth. Solomon and myself wereth in the middleth of preparations foreth a new session beforeth thy intrusion. Telleth us thy tale as we partake.”

Raymond grimaced, but did not deny their request. And so while Constantine and Solomon smoked and hit their short bursts of highs, pacing around the room, sometimes making small, strange noises before sitting down again and twitching as they settled into an uneasy rest, Raymond told them a mostly fake story of his life.

He patched together a tragic narrative using details and knowledge he had gleaned from a variety of books, films, documentaries, and news reports detailing the effects of cocaine and the unfortunate events that often accompanied its use. To these facts, he attached long-suppressed memories of a home he’d left in anger and shame. On more than one occasion, Raymond wasn’t sure if he was lying.

While he was lying, his mind grappled with the implications of his decision. In deceiving these men, was he acting like a condescending imperialist by believing he could deceive the simple, child-like natives? Though the specter of this thought haunted him, his belief in connecting with all human beings on their own terms superseded this particular concern on this particular occasion. Throughout his tale, Raymond made sure to cast what he believed were longing glances at their billowing crack pipes before pretending to force himself to look away.  By the time he was describing the month he spent turning tricks in Phoenix, Raymond had settled on feeling guilty for misleading the men. He justified the guilt as a pragmatic necessary evil with the conviction that it was the only way to gain their acceptance, allowing him to learn their true nature as they revealed to him this hidden side of life he‘d never experienced before.

When Raymond felt satisfied with the conclusion of his story, he looked to his companions for their approval.

“Thou hast had some experiences,” Constantine spoke in a jittery stutter.

“That’s just life though, you know?” Raymond nodded sagaciously, “So, what sort of stuff got you here?”

“Twas a simpleth series of hardships,” Constantine began, “Ineth Anacostia, one is ofteneth born and suffereth through life untileth death. Tis no moreth thaneth thateth. Mine predilection foreth thiseth substance offerethest a moment ofeth ecstasy and freedom ineth thateth world. Howevereth, the choice doth inflict a greatereth intensity of suffering ineth the end. Mayhaps mine dichotomy iseth false, buteth it seemeth we chooseth between middling, extended suffering and the extremes foundeth within thiseth pipe.”

Raymond lapped up each syllable with an insatiable lust for their authentic and unadulterated realism. This moment, this was real. This was life. This is what real life looked and felt and sounded like. All his theories and philosophies and deeper meanings went right out the window. They meant nothing here in this room with these real human beings. A state of nirvana began to settle on Raymond’s psyche as he sat there in Constantine’s crack den. He nearly considered himself a genuine person.

Solomon stirred and bleated harshly, “Shut thy gob, Constantine thy slob. Whyest art thou placing airs uponeth thy manner? Do not leteth yonder slattern confuseth thee, oh ye of little melanin, tis the man’s lust for cock that driveth him.”

“Quiteth thyself, cur. Thy cockmanship far outstrips mine own. Slattern? I name thee strumpet, a whore too loose foreth the inner sanctum of Babylon.”

Raymond was shaken from his rapture by their puerile debate. He attempted to steer the subject back to matters of import, “Solomon, what are your thoughts on the use of mind altering substances to deal with the horrors of existence?”

“Mine thoughts pertaineth entirely to the realm of sucking your cock andeth your payment ofeth $100 for the pleasure. Ifeth no arrangement iseth desirable for thee, thou canneth go fucketh thyself back with thy lightly colored brethren.”

“Thy blackmouthed blackguard! Whyest dost thou speaketh toeth yonder innocent snowflake with such a tone. Can’st thou not see the man shall payeth for high talk?” Constantine turned once more to Raymond, “Never thee worry, good sir, if thou be of a mindeth to continue afashion, I shall happily oblige. Twill be a bit more cash, however. T’wouldn’t be mine first talk job, I assure thee.”

Raymond shrunk within himself, “No1 I wasn’t here for anything like that! I…I came here to…I don’t know! But you’re real people!”

Constantine smiled at him seductively, revealing his mouth of darkened teeth, “We canneth be anything thou desire foreth the right amount.”

Standing now, Raymond trembled, pleading for them to understand his intentions, “I swear to you I’m only here to learn and experience! This is a part of life…I’ve known but never felt in person! I just wanted to see and understand…”

Constantine made a grab for Raymonds genitals, “Everyone wanteth it in their owneth manner. Payeth and thy desire shall be fulfilled.”

“I can’t…You…how do we understand?” Raymond cried as he turned and fled from the house.

Hours of wandering later found him home explaining his situation to Asher and Chandra. Asher laughed in delight and Chandra appeared confused. Raymond detached himself and watched his body laugh with Asher and heard his words agree with how absurd he was. He saw his form bid them goodnight and retire to his room. Joining once more with his own physicality, his consciousness lay awake, seething.

[1] This was Sergei777’s full legal name. His parents, Yuri32 and Ivana91, had been master hackers and had wished for their child to follow in their digital footsteps. Though accounting and dividends had always been Sergei777’s true passion, he was forced to take over the family business following Yuri32’s botched hack into the Foreign Intelligence Service’s database in search of information on the frequent pederastic orgies members of the Duma supervised and provided their own children as tribute during to sate the ever-expanding appetite of the Russian administration. After allegedly finding tapes of an alleged sexual encounter between the Russian president and prime minister’s infant son, Yuri32 and Ivana91 were allegedly killed by alleged government thugs, leaving young Sergei777 as a vengeful hacker orphan.

[2] A government leak would have made the news feel like a conspiracy and cover-up. Subsequent government denials would only further undermine the trust the people placed in the administration. Modern Issue could then deliver a stunning exposé on the government’s lies and record an interview with the courageous whistle blowing scientist working on the NFVS project, positioning themselves as champions of the people’s truth. That’s what Asher assumed would have happened, anyways.

[3] One of the strangest new converts was a man named Jake Tampala who, much to Raymond’s amusement and Chandra’s annoyance, began his own blog proclaiming Chandra Sen “The Reverend Mother of Violence;” God’s divine researcher manifested on Earth. The blog was attacked mercilessly, but Mr. Tampala’s faith endured and his martyr-like perseverance earned his denomination of SVB a significant following. He began sending frequent messages to Modern Issue’s email the day after Dr. Sen’s congressional outing. Asher had never replied or informed Chandra of this new admirer’s attempts to engage his savior.

[4] Prior to the realization that the collective’s proposed administration was not going to happen.

[5] Raymond was unsure if “People” was in the name twice, only before “Banana,” or only before “Choice.”

The Pile – Chapter Nine

Summer had descended on DC and the days were saturated with humidity and exhaustion. The air conditioning of the Red Roof Inn was on the fritz, plunging their rooms into an abysmal and suffocating heat that battered their bodies with relentless waves of stagnant air. Asher and Raymond could no longer work long hours within the confines of their rooms, and as Anacostia lacked a café culture to support their needs, the pair was forced to furtively slip into suburban coffee chains whenever they posted. Nico was found sweating at various construction sites around the district or cooling herself in her architect’s offices downtown. Though Chandra had spent a considerable portion of her life lacking climate control in the slums of Dhaka, she was now acclimatized to comfort. Her escape was her pleasantly cool laboratory where, to Asher’s great displeasure, she was now spending the majority of her nights.

But Chandra was furious. Working with Dr. Slovache was proving exceptionally difficult, particularly when his ludicrous hypotheses were corroborated by her rigorous experimentation. His unorthodox methods, which included staging fights between burly men and injecting the world’s deadliest diseases into human test subjects, were producing clear and respectable results. The tests were also exceedingly media friendly, allowing the surprisingly camera savvy Slovache to bill himself as America’s preeminent scientific mind. His teleconferenced guest appearances on news outlets invariably produced an outbreak of widely shared quotes and too-fantastic-to-be-real video clips. Chandra’s own experiments, by contrast, were far too technical and lacking in shirtless men pummeling one another to capture the public’s imagination or explain over a talking head accusing her of “playing God”. Her stints in mass media, often arranged by Asher, were consistently characterized by two aspects; her obvious scientific brilliance, and the obvious confusion her obvious scientific brilliance inflicted on the program’s host.  This earned her a public reputation for standoffish elitism and arrogance.

The usual bile-filled internet commentariat developed a special sort of hatred for Dr. Sen. As an attractive minority woman who was clearly more intelligent than everyone around her and didn’t attempt to hide it, the wrath she faced from the resentful masses was fierce. It seemed open season for racist and sexist remarks on any article that mentioned her name even in passing. Though Chandra was far too busy to spend any time reading the vileness spewed across the fiber-optic landscape, the concerned looks from the other scientists at the NFVS project did occasionally disturb her concentration.

Her curiosity eventually got the better of her and she read an article on a conservative news source detailing her most recent interview. The article itself was insulting, with coded usage of “frigid” and “feisty” as descriptors of her demeanor, and the strange inclusion of her marital status in a column where the topic was an interview on her new method of mapping electron distribution in alkali metals. But the comment section was what truly seared her spirit. The white-hot hatred espoused by people who, as far as Chandra knew, she’d never met or done anything particularly nasty to, was startling. How could a person hate someone they’d only seen a handful of times in media reports?

But hate they did. The most common word used to describe her, “Bitch”, was disappointingly uncreative. “Terrorist” was equally mundane. She’d grown accustomed to western media portraying anyone with her skin color as threatening. “Terrorist Bitch” was a bit better; at least it showed a neuronal spark. As she waded through comment after comment attacking her, reply after reply agreeing with or cheering on the hatred, she began to feel a weight sag within her. Though she’d initially felt some amusement over the time and energy these poor souls put into hating her for whatever petty reason they’d contrived, reading thousands of anonymous voices calling for someone to “rape the monkey with a splintered cross” or to “do what her barbarian family should have done and stone her to death” soon found Chandra trembling alone at her desk. After a moment of wondering at the base nature of humanity, she turned off her computer and went back to work.

Chandra’s growing negative public profile eventually consummated in the bluster of a porkish, red-faced conservative television host who interrupted her while she was calmly trying to break down the role quarks played in preventing an atom’s transmission of violence to demand she scale back her “uppity tone” while she was a guest in his country and on his program. When Chandra spoke to him harshly over his outrageously sexist tone and racist declaration, the host defended himself by claiming nothing he’d said was remotely racist or sexist and that she was being an overly sensitive enforcer of Politically Correct fascism. He then ambushed her with a question on a sexual assault case she’d filed against a professor during her days at Yale.

“You accused this man of sexually assaulting you, but the allegation was never proven. However, you continued to hound and attack this man as part of your prestigious university’s “institutionalized misogyny” in an op-ed you penned for your campus paper. Even after the university convened a panel and dropped the case, you took part in a rally against men. Are you a radical feminist? And don’t you feel the need to apologize to this man, whose name you dragged through the mud with allegations that were proven false?”

Rather than respond, the good Dr. Sen promptly walked off the set and refused to participate in any further interviews with “these dark-age cretins,” as she lamented to a righteously enraged Asher on their trip back to Anacostia. Any future mention of Dr. Sen within popular culture was always prefaced with the video and a description of her final, controversial interview. The swine-infused host used the media’s temporary focus on the event to make the rounds on sympathetic talk shows to defend his position and promote his new book, How We Defend Us: The Growing Threat of Multiculturalism in the Age of Non-Violence.

Now that the public was reassured that important people were making important progress on this important situation, Modern Issue’s influence saw a marked decline in daily readership. Their promotion of Dr. Sen, in conjunction with their daily discussion of controversial topics, began to turn readers off due to the site’s “negative vibes.” Their name was suddenly synonymous with troublemaking and boat-rocking. Conservative pundits began smearing their liberal colleagues as “Modern Issue readers” to signify their target was disruptive to the good order of their newly stable society. The liberal talking heads defined so responded by vehemently denying their association with the fringe publication. Now was a time for stability and business as usual, institutional editorials proclaimed, failing to cite Asher’s original articles for the creation of the idea. The media’s mantra was clear: dissenting voices were unwelcome and unwanted.

Modern Issue’s new place in the political lexicon frustrated both Asher and Raymond, though not enough to change the content of their posts. Chandra urged Asher to abandon his public defense of her qualities, insisting she was happy to stay out of the spotlight and simply utilize the limitless resources provided to the NFVS project to conduct personal research. But Asher steadfastly refused to comply, believing that pragmatism was not an adequate course of action in this particular situation. There were certain positions, he stated, that could not be compromised. Therefore, between Asher’s increasing vitriol and Raymond’s constant stream of contentious columns, Modern Issue returned to the periphery of the public’s consciousness.

Chandra’s guilt at being a contributing factor in Modern Issue’s decline, along with the incorporation of the accumulation of the population’s directed hatred into her psyche, increased her tension at work. Though she privately considered Dr. Slovache an idiot, she maintained an amiable working relationship with the eccentric scientist by adopting a pliant and submissive façade that bowed to his nonsensical whims with the goal of getting him to leave her office as quickly as possible. This front was severely debilitated as her personal turmoil took a toll on her energy. His intrusions into her workspace begging her to explain basic scientific principles hindered her progress and tested her patience. On more than one occasion she barely stopped herself from mercilessly berating his abilities and driving him from her sight. Only the joy she experienced in relation to her work’s rapid advancement, despite Dr. Slovache’s occasional incursions, allowed Chandra to endure the incompetence of her superior.

Dr. Sen’s support staff continued to shock her with their usefulness. During her exile, she’d adapted to running a lab by herself; performing every task in every experiment with tedious precision. With competent assistants, however, Chandra found she had more time to develop theories. Though it was initially difficult to trust in the abilities of the other scientists, her subordinates gradually proved their general aptitude. Some of her colleagues even went as far as mildly impressing her when asked to employ advanced laboratory techniques. She was further surprised when a few of the more experienced members of her staff proved capable of offering intelligent suggestions and feedback on the course of their current project. Chandra, for the first time, began to enjoy working with a team of people who, while not exactly her peers, had something to offer her beyond the limited capacity she’d come to expect from other human beings. Her most advanced research however, which she defined as anything that would lead a reasonable person to conclude the supernatural nature of violence, was kept closely guarded at her private workstation.

Though outside her field of expertise, Chandra had begun an inquiry into the biological effects of NFVS. After weeks of testing samples for levels of violence during the process of mitosis, she’d reached a startling conclusion; human cells were now, for lack of a better term, immortal. The full implications for the human process of aging was uncovered when Chandra witnessed the complete reparation of a human cell within twenty replications. By the twentieth cycle, the health of the genetic code and length of the telomeres taken from an eighty-year old subject had returned to peak levels of efficiency, similar to something one might expect in a healthy twenty-three year old. Upon further testing from every scientific angle she could imagine, Dr. Sen concluded that human beings could still be born and grow older, but as they approached the age of optimal cell health, somewhere around twenty-three-years-old, the cell’s would reach an equilibrium and future replications would merely produce equally healthy copies. The lack of available violence meant human cells could only improve and never degrade. Her research also implied that human beings older than twenty-three would see their corporeal form gradually return to the zenith of physical health as their cells replicated. In the coming years, Chandra foresaw an unprecedented and catastrophic population explosion among the human race unless dramatic measures were taken.

As Dr. Sen was finalizing the notes from her private research to present to Nico, Asher, and Raymond so the group could decide on the best course of action to account for this shocking new information, Dr. Slovache strolled into her office unannounced. He was nearly next to her before she noticed his wheezing presence.

Existing near Hubert Slovache’s physical form was decidedly unpleasant. He seemed to ooze an aura that soaked the nearby recipient with the feeling that a shower was the most vital action they could take in the next half-hour. The jowls weighing down his sagging features were folded an incalculable number of times and always shiny with perspiration. Two strands of hair lay psychotically across the otherwise smooth dome of his cranium, linking each unkempt tuft of greying auburn hair like a stereotypical rope bridge unimaginative action movies set in distant jungles use to heighten tension. When observing these narrow threads of hope, one couldn’t help but imagine the curator carefully arranging their placement each morning in a delusional attempt to reclaim ground lost long ago to age and the scourge of male-pattern baldness. With so much of his body protected from soap by other parts of his body, Slovache also carried an array of unspeakable odors, infecting and tainting every surrounding surface.

His recent acumen in media relations, incomprehensible to those who knew Dr. Slovache personally, was due in great measure to his insistence on being interviewed via satellite from his office after ample preparation and a miraculous transformation involving a finely-crafted, all-natural, diminished male follicle assistance apparatus and the heroic efforts of his personal assistant/make-up magician. The smell was avoided and his limited charm could shine through the layers of caked beauty masking his flaccid countenance.

Unfortunately for Chandra, her interaction with Hubert Slovache on this occasion was sans satellite and the smell couldn’t be avoided. It was always a surprise which genre of rot he’d bring along. It constantly changed and rarely repeated. Chandra wasn’t previously aware there were so many different olfactory variations in the sensation of spoilage. At least the open sewers in Dhaka were consistent; an odor you could grow accustomed to and count on welcoming you home after a long journey to less pungent portions of the city. The constant cycling in Slovache’s stench meant adaptation was impossible; and every day brought new rank suffering.

Today her nostrils filled with the unmistakable smell of over-ripe durian. She was amazed that a man who prided himself on sticking to “All-American” fare, no matter what part of the world his search for mythological truth brought him to, could be blessed with the ability to acquire such internationally diverse aromas.

Chandra suppressed a gag and looked up, “Oh, Dr. Slovache, I did not hear you come in. I am just finishing for today,” she said as she attempted to stash her notes.

“Dr. Sen,” Slovache rasped in his guttural grumble of a voice, “How is your research into NFVS’s effect on the ageing progressing?”

“Oh!” Chandra started. She’d forgotten she’d mentioned the research to a curdled cottage-cheese scented Slovache one day in desperation to remove him from the range of her nostrils, “It is going well, but there are complications. It is a very difficult process. I have to measure the varying length of the telomeres in cells and compare that to the frequency of mitosis, but we are slogging on.”

“Well I’m sure you’re doing the best you can. I’d be happy to assist, but I just can’t find the time to get down here too often. We’ve got the quarterfinal bouts coming up, you know. Speaking of, were you interested in placing bets? Just between you and me, my money’s on Abrahams. Murrey has a mean right hook, but as it doesn’t really do anything on the violent side anymore, the fights are wars of attrition now. Abrahams has the patience to sit there and wait it out.”

Eyes watering, Chandra declined, “No…no I think not. I have never been a fan of bloodsport. I should be getting home I think.”

Chandra stood up to leave, grabbing the file to take back to Anacostia. Either she stood up too fast or Slovache’s durian flavoring proved too much for her. She awoke moments later having crumpled back into her chair, papers scattered across the floor.

“Oh dear! Are you alright? Feeling a little under the weather? Maybe you should take some time off? I know the press can be rough sometimes, and that last interview was awfully unfair,” Slovache said in the kindest tone he believed he could manage. He bent to gather the fallen sheets of paper.

Chandra was recovering her senses and panicking, “I am sorry; I am not sure what happened. Please do not trouble yourself, Dr. Slovache. I can pick those up.”

But it was too late. Slovache had seen the title of her report, “Immortality induced when cells lack the necessary Spirit of Violence? What does this mean Dr. Sen? The Spirit of Violence?”

“Just a theory, Dr. Slovache, just a theory,” Chandra attempted to assuage his curiosity.

“Please fill me in. It sounds fascinating.”

Half-terrified and half-relieved she was forced to reveal her work, Chandra related the details of her studies. While it was clear Dr. Slovache couldn’t follow the data, he jumped at the idea of a supernatural force.

When she finished, Slovache was giddy, “We must tell people!”

Chandra balked, “Well, sir, I am afraid the data is not quite ready yet. I still need to run a few more…”

“I’m convinced! I’m head of this project and I think we should all refocus our efforts on your research.”

“But…sir…the implications…if this got out now…”

“The truth is what the public deserves! I’ve spent my whole career trying to bring the truth to light. I’ll not compromise now!”

Chandra berated herself silently for her olfactory sensitivity, but she was tired of being attacked while uncovering the secrets of NFVS. She strove to help her species, but she’d been painted as a villain. Sharing her data felt like unburdening her soul during confessional, but here her priest was an inquisitor, and his zealotry condemned her to persecution. Chandra was momentarily abandoned by her robust mental faculties and dutifully followed a manic Dr. Slovache to the atrium.

After gathering their staff for a general meeting, Dr. Slovache presented, in his limited capacity, Chandra’s new research. His conclusion was met with pronounced silence.

“You mean, we won’t age?” a curious intern asked in the stillness.

“That’s right, once we reach the age of…what is it? 23?” Slovache looked at Chandra, who nodded, “We’ll no longer physically age.”

“So…if violence can’t kill us, diseases can’t kill us…and now we don’t age, how do we die?” an elderly biologist asked.

Slovache looked at Chandra, urging her to respond. Mechanically, Chandra stated, “At this point, I do not see death as a functional possibility. However it may be that we have not exhausted every possible avenue.”

“What you’re saying is…it’s possible humans are now immortal?” another young intern ventured.

“That is possible,” Chandra conceded.

“So I think that just about proves it!” Slovache spoke triumphantly, “There is a force at work here from beyond the physical realm. We’re now dealing with spiritual matters, people. The esteemed Dr. Sen has shown us the way.”

“I’m simply presenting my findings,” Chandra stated.

“These are more than findings, Dr. Sen, this is a new doctrine! You’ve introduced us to the way of the Spirit of Violence! We must understand our spiritual nature if we’re to understand violence,” Slovache said in a voice that’d taken the tenor of a Sunday sermon.

“…This is just Science,” Chandra said, annoyed her biological extrapolations were having a greater impact than her well-plotted physics data sets, “If you want to talk about supernatural evidence, we have to talk about the unknown force acting on our atoms, not your idea of a ‘Spirit’”

The room began to murmur, with most veteran scientists scoffing at the notion of a spiritual force at work in the violence issue.

“Why’re we talking about ghosts and goblins? We’re a serious and vital research facility. We’re here to use real Science to understand,” a pudgy physicist called out in anger.

“We’re wasting time! Let’s review your findings, Dr. Sen. That’s what real scientists do,” the elderly biologist stated, shooting Slovache a poisoned glance around the word ‘real’.

“Stop! I’m the lead researcher here! And Dr. Sen’s findings have convinced me!” Slovache shouted in a frothy zeal. His carefully placed strands of hair were displaced by the force of his movements and swung down from the crown of his head, where they hung precariously over his face, stretching from his temple all the way down to his collar.

“You haven’t even tested her data!” a lanky botanist yelled.

“I don’t need to! I have faith in Dr. Sen, and there can be no other explanation!” Slovache responded, his face and jowls reddening with rage.

“Wait a moment…” attempted Chandra.

“This is insane. This is not science. I’ll not be part of such an absurd project!” the physicist retorted as he stomped out.

“Don’t worry! We don’t require any of you! If you refuse to take this leap of faith by accepting hard scientific evidence, you have no place on this project!” His tenuous strands of hair flapped and flopped from the side of his head as his spittle laced diatribe attacked the assemblage.

The entirety of the scientific team, save for two interns, left muttering mutinously. The interns cautiously approached a seething Dr. Slovache.

“Excuse me, sir. If we stay can we get promoted and paid like real scientists?” one of the women asked timidly.

“No! You’re interns!” Slovache yelled back.

“Oh, well then fuck you, asshole,” she spat as both followed the exodus.

Slovache turned to Chandra, “Good. Now we can get some actual work done. We need to prepare this for my upcoming monthly congressional progress report.”

“Dr. Slovache, I don’t know if we should unveil this quite yet. The public’s reaction…”

“Baloney! With your data we’ve got all the evidence we need,” Slovache dismissed her, then paused, considering her point a second time, “Actually, I think it’d be best if you take the lead on this, Dr. Sen. I want you to present the testimony.”

“But Dr. Slovache! You are the lead researcher! This is your project! Congress expects the testimony to come from you.”

“Yes…well…I think because you discovered it, you should have the honor of presenting it to the world! You deserve it!” Slovache said, nervously observing her reaction.

“Very well then. I will begin preparations tomorrow,” Chandra responded stiffly, understanding her situation.

After this unfortunate detour, Dr. Sen gathered her summarized data once again and left for the day.

Back at the Red Roof Inn, an exhausted Chandra walked met with a cheery Nico, Asher, and Raymond. Since Nico’s shift in tactics, a decision that initially infuriated Asher, there’d been a marked improvement in the group’s overall morale. This climb in spirit came despite the recent decline in the popularity of Modern Issue[1].

Nico and Raymond, to all outward appearances, seemed an idyllic, blissfully happy young couple. When not busy working on their own projects, they were occupied with teasing and debating one another on all manner of issues with a gaiety usually reserved for fictionalized cinema romances. Their happiness and enthusiasm were infectious, making each return to the succor of the motel refuge a rejuvenating experience after Chandra’s strain with the media and at work.

“I have what might be considered a bit of news,” she announced as the group turned to greet her return.

“Welcome back! I’m always a fan of news,” Raymond answered her.

Chandra proceeded to relate the recent laboratorial happenings to her shocked congregation.

“Slovache wants you to testify?” Nico questioned, “But why?”

Asher appeared pensive, “I think he realized the potential political fallout and doesn’t want to be the face of the theory. Chandra has a pretty questionable reputation on the Hill, so he figures she can bear the brunt of the criticism.”

“That is my thinking as well,” Chandra agreed, “I do not believe the public is ready for this concept. I…I am sorry to you all…”

“Oh no! Please Chandra, don’t be. We understand how you must have felt. It had to happen eventually. We’ll all deal with this together,” Nico comforted her.

“Raymond was probably going to slip up and spill the beans sooner or later, so it’s better it happened like this,” Asher joked.

“Hey! I’ve been exceedingly careful with our beans, thank you. But yeah Chandra, I’m glad you did it! Any change is exciting change! Besides, you wanted to go public with this months ago, didn’t you?”

“I did. But after witnessing the reactions of my colleagues, people who have been exposed to a great deal of research that might lead to these conclusions; I am highly concerned.”

“How’re we going to handle this?” Raymond asked.

They each weighed various options. After an extended period of group contemplation, it was Asher who spoke, “Let’s just present the full, unadulterated theory and let the chips fall where they may.”

The other three looked at one another with concern. “Doesn’t that seem a bit reckless, Asher? And this is me asking.” Raymond said.

“Would not such a shock plunge society back into chaos?” Chandra wondered.

“Probably, But so what?” Asher said casually, smiling at them placidly.

“Asher! What’s wrong with you!?” Raymond was aghast at his friend’s uncharacteristic demeanor.

“Look, we’ve been charting a pragmatic course this entire time, and it’s gotten us nowhere. We bungled the Slovache thing and Modern Issue is on life-support In terms of influence. A little chaos might throw us back into the mix, especially when the catalyst is coming from our happy little band.”

“Is this about personal power, Asher?” Nico asked. The room was strangely tense.

“No. It’s not about your power or my power,” Asher responded tersely, “It’s about what’s good for the world. Raymond’s been rattling off columns about the positives of enlightened dictatorship, and I think he’s right.”

“But that’s just theory, Asher! Who’d be qualified to rule?” Raymond was upset at the thought of his theories being put into practice.

“Who better than us?” Asher asked the three rigid faces following his words, “I’m not saying we should be a bunch of power mad wanna-be dictators; I’m saying the perspective and balance of power we have in this group would serve the world well if it were applied to the global policymaking process.”

“You want to use my theory to destabilize the world, and then use Raymond’s theory after we chart a path to power?” Chandra asked skeptically.

“Your theory is valid, correct?” Asher asked intently.

“Yes…but…”

“Then all we’re doing is telling people the truth. Whatever happens after that is human nature.”

“But you know what will happen!” Nico protested.

“Probably, but why should we keep this from the public? Nobody can be hurt anyways, at least not physically, right? The stakes and risks are significantly lower.”

“I…guess,” Raymond allowed.

“Don’t you want to try out one of your theories for real? On the national stage?” Asher pushed Raymond.

“I suppose I do…but…”

“I’m not doing this for myself! We can make a better world, but only if we work together.”

“I’m not sure about this, Asher. Humanity is unpredictable when it comes to spirituality,” Nico warned.

“What’s gonna happen? The Crusades?” laughed Asher, “An inquisition? There’s no violence anymore. The only way to control people is through ideas. And there’s no one in the world with better ideas than us.”

They each agreed with him, but not one of them had even admitted this thought to themselves, let alone another human being. They felt violated; as if Asher had broken the cardinal rule of their existence. Their entire lives had been a balance between their absolute belief in their personal superiority and their unwavering commitment to egalitarianism. With this levy breached, they were terrified where their impulses would lead them.

“If we’re going down this road we have to take real steps to make sure we’re working for the good of our species. The glory of our personal egos can’t cloud that.” Nico insisted.

“Of course! Besides, how’d we feel glorified anyways? It’s not like we care about the opinions of the peasantry.”

Uncomfortable silence.

“I’m joking! Jesus! You know we’re all committed to the general welfare of humanity. Power is pointless. The real rush comes from knowing we’re advancing our species by seeing policies we created work effectively on the macro level.”

“My god, I was worried,” Raymond sighed in relief, “I thought we’d lost you to megalomania.”

“I don’t think we need worry about that,” Asher grinned at them, “I really don’t see how people get so hopped up on the idea of power and control. If you consider yourself better than the people you’ve designated as your rightful subjects, how is it stimulating to wield power over them? Wouldn’t it just feel like the natural order?”

“People derive pleasure from absolute power scenarios. Children enjoy the power they possess when destroying an ant colony, regardless of how the ants feel about this use of power. Impunity from repercussions when committing such an act on creatures considered powerless is what enhances their enjoyment,” Chandra responded.

“I suppose that could be true. I think it’s a shallow and unfulfilling impulse. Isn’t it more satisfying to exist amongst respected peers?”

The group continued their pleasant debate on the nature of power having unanimously, though uneasily, decided to seize it.

They spent the days leading up to Chandra’s testimony positioning their ideas. Asher and Raymond published and prepared a litany of articles extolling Dr. Sen’s countless virtues. Nico secured the acquisition of numerous media outlets the group could steer to subtly promote their interests after the revelations of Chandra Sen rocked society. Raymond also brought Dr. DeMasters into their scheme, insisting his perspective was a crucial missing ingredient. DeMasters was highly ambivalent as to their bid for power, but the thought of passing uncompromised reforms once they held sway was too tempting a proposition to oppose.

On the day of the testimony, having prepared as well as possible, the troupe escorted Chandra to the hearing on the Hill.

While the others waited outside the classified hearing, Chanda assumed her place in front of the panel of politicians. The room was crowded with security personnel and aides[2].

The committee chairperson, Senator Stovall (R-OK), welcomed Chandra with his contrived rustic mannerism, “We’re grateful you could fill in for Dr. Slovache today and are sure you’ll do your best.”

Chandra looked annoyed but maintained her professionalism, “Thank you for having me, it is a pleasure to be here and I do apologize for the absence of Dr. Slovache. Our revered head researcher felt I was the most qualified individual to testify today. It was my research that led to our most recent discovery.”

The Senator smiled condescendingly, “Yes, I’m sure. Please proceed with your progress report.”

Chandra detailed the specifics of her research in highly technical language. The committee was lost after her first sentence and frequently interrupted her to ask for “less science-y” terms. Chandra endeavored to oblige, but found difficulty in attempting to simplify her advanced research into the single-syllable rhetoric the committee required. By the time she reached her findings, the entire panel was thoroughly exasperated. However, when she launched into the portion of her conclusion Asher had written for the occasion, the panel’s mood became downright cantankerous. Upon the use of the phrase “Spirit of Violence,” near pandemonium broke out within the chamber.

“Stop! What in the world are you saying?” demanded a furious Senator Stovall, “What’s this pagan nonsense you’re spouting off?”

“I am simply relating to the panel the conclusions and findings of my research. The Spirit of Violence is a scientifically verifiable force related to…”

“We’ll not continue this blasphemy in the hallowed halls of Congress!” Stovall shouted, “You’re removed from this project!”

“Very well.  We have our data. And we have already released this to the press.”

Stovall was stunned, “Your research is classified! You‘ve committed treason!”

“Treason?”

“You’ve betrayed the interests of this nation!”

“This nation has betrayed the interests of our species, but I do not call you traitors. You are ignorant cowards and fools.”

“Arrest her!”

Personnel from the Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigations descended on Chandra, who languorously thwarted their adamant efforts to seize her by walking out of their ineffective grasp as a frothing Stovall screamed, “Seize that terrorist bitch!” The hapless agents desperately wished to comply with their orders but were powerless without access to violence. Asher and Raymond quickly joined Chandra as she strode out of the chamber and the three of them ran to a waiting vehicle. Nico slipped out a separate entrance to avoid public association.

They spent the next few hours ensuring they’d lost their tails, finally returning to Anacostia in high and hopeful spirits, ready to begin their ascent.

[1] Asher dismissed the downward trend in readership, believing the next inevitable crisis would see their numbers rise once more.

[2] The Hill had recently implemented its “Take an Intern, Leave an Intern” program to great fanfare and general acclaim. Whenever an aide required additional assistance, they could call the Hill Intern Pool (HIP), which would miraculously deliver a new intern. Ostensibly the program was supposed to allow interns an opportunity to see all sides of Congress by loaning them out to various offices, which would return them so they could be loaned again. In reality, offices only took interns, never left, and congressional intern staffs had swelled well into the hundreds. No one knew where the HIP kept finding fresh, qualified bodies* for the Hill’s infinite and delicate purposes, but everyone was too busy with work to check.

*HIP found these interns fairly easily by hiring thousands of previously rejected applicants who’d been equally qualified in every way other than their family connections.