Monday, July 1, 2013

Mind Over Matter: A Short Story

A short story that was written for the Chi-Town anthology; it got left out, so I'm reprinting it here.

Mind Over Matter

Whatever an enemy might do to an enemy, or a foe to a foe, the ill-directed mind can do to you even worse.
Gautama Buddha, Cittavagga The Mind

 I had that dream again last night. The one where everything runs together and I'm positive that I'm myself, from the future, sent back to the past to inhabit my own body and correct mistakes that I've made. I always wake up hoping that if I have the dream enough that I'll wake up before I had the operation, but that never happens, and instead, I live with a day or a week of deja vu, everything happening just as my dreams foretold. The dreams are better than lying awake, trying to do that meditation shit that they talk about... I just sit there and feel the damn Cans eating into my brain, devouring what little I have left in its mad quest to make me into Lord goddamn Coake, psychic superhero to the masses.

Do you know what it's like to feel yourself go Crazy? To know that every thought you have is a result of the last thought pinging off some horrific psi-cola bottle that a mad scientist shoved into your head? To lie awake at night, feeling your brain fall apart, and feel those things start to knit it back together again in ways it was never meant to be? I check my gear, stored on the rafter above me; in the Old Town, today, so no guns or lasers or plasma or ions or... check it. Just the blades. Dead boys don't say anything against a knife, even a vibro-knife, that they won't say against a Crazy in the first place.

I find myself on the floor, thirty feet vertical and fifty horizontal from where I started. Thinking about it, I must have swung out of bed, caught the hammock with one hand so I didn't fall to the floor, used that to flip to the wall, bounced, and launched myself at the floor and into a roll. I only notice it after it happens; by the time I'm aware that I've done it, I'm on the floor and walking out the door.

Why am I out the door today? Some days, I never am; I spend all day in bed, trying to find a reason to leave, afraid of what will happen if I leave. Once I got lost in counting the number of knots in my hammock, and compulsively untied all of them... had to buy a new hammock. But I'm leaving today, and I don't recall why. I try to remember, to gather my thoughts as they run like frightened sheep from the giant steel intruders that govern my brain. I try to bring them together, but watch them run in terror when I catch sight of myself in a fragment of glass and they see those hateful Cans... those horrid things sticking out of my head like monster's horns... winking in the sunlight as if to taunt me, people shying away from me because of these evil, cursed, horns.

I feel myself trembling, about to lose it, and take some slow, deep breaths. They're not cursed horns, they're just the M.O.M. implants. They're not taunting you, it's just bright... the sun has caught them when it came out of the cloud. People aren't staring at you to laugh, they're staring because you're acting scary. They get scared when Crazies stare at windows, talking to themselves and twitching. Put the knife away. Calm down. Calm down. Don't freak out. Don't freak out. Don't freak out.

Now, what am I doing? Right, the interview. I'm meeting with that reporter-guy, who wants to talk about being a Crazy. Name, name name.... that's right. Irvin. Who the hell makes up his cover names? No one is named Irvin. When you chose a cover name, it's supposed to sound like a real name, not made up. Probably wind up telling me its a family name if I ask. Right.. if he's got family from goddamn Dimension X. What if he does? What if his family really is from dimension X? Should I ask him about dimension X? Should I refuse to answer any questions unless he tells me what dimension
Who thought that? Who put that thought in my head, trying to weasel their way into my brain with false thoughts? Did I steal it from another's brain? Was it thought so loudly that I couldn't help but find it? Is someone accusing me? Is “Irvin” a Cyber-Knight? Why does he want to know about being Crazy, if he's a Cyber-Knight... aren't they supposed to care about real people, not Crazies? Who is Irvin, why am I remembering him?

Reporter, bar, talk... soon, make complete sentences. Couple more blocks and I'm there, out of the crowd. Too many people, can't keep track of them all, just the ones near me; makes me nervous. Why is that guy staring at me? I know he's staring at me because even though I've started hiding behind this tub of lard here, he's still angling for a better look. If he doesn't stop staring, he's going to wind up hurt. He's got a knife, need to grab his wrist and snap it back far enough to break it; is he wearing crotch protection? A couple shots there will convince him to... Wait, he's just looking at the poster. Ok, it's not me... ratchet it back. Cut down the paranoia.

I step into the bar, and in three breaths I know that the barman hasn't showered in at least a week... have some sensitivity for those of us with decent noses; the combined unshowered time in this room approaches a year, and that's five guys. Gentleman in the corner isn't human... little more... that's right, scratch your armpit, give me that scent you stupid bastard... quick-flex. Always smell like a gorram meth lab. He's got a knife... ozone says another... that one, with the bulge and drag... is carrying a ... laser? No, ion pistol. Dude's got yarbles, I'll give him that. Deadies will feed those yarbles to their puppies if they catch him totin' that in a fine establishment like this.

“Irvin” ... Sweet Purple Messiah, couldn't he have picked another name? It's gonna bug me all day ... is already here. Dark skin, no hair, that same dirty green jacket that could hold any number of surprises, but usually just hides a recorder and some mics... idiot, coming unarmed into the Burbs, even the Old Town... Sitting in the middle of the room like a happy little target. Very tempted to pick him up and throw him someplace better.... I don't think he'd appreciate that. What do normal people do again? Make him move without breaking him? That's right... eye contact, jerk my head towards a booth... he's coming, no need to go to step three, which is the implied violence. Maybe I'm implying violence just by doing it? I never know... people are always scared of me. Do they think I'm just going to flip out and kill people? That Crazies flip out and kill people all the time? Why does that thought make me want to wear black pajamas?

I watch, consciously narrowing my eyes as he pulls out the audio recorder. I established early I don't like this thing... not quite sure why, but it gives me the willies. It's not like he can actually hurt me while putting on the throat mics without me knowing in advance, but something tweaks me about it. It's also kinda fun to watch him squirm carefully as he puts the throat mics on both of us, as if he's afraid I'll eat him. I'm tempted to nip at his hand as he pulls it back... it must show in my eyes, because he tenses for an instant before sliding his hand back to turn on the recorder.

This was my third meeting with the man who calls himself Abel Baker, a Crazy with several years of experience since he had his mind taken from him. That's how he refers to it; his mind being taken from him. Abel was a whipcord-thin man with dirty-blond hair that he told me, last time, he grew long to cover his M.O.M. Implants; it was unsuccessful, because the largest of them still protruded from his forehead, hair falling neatly to either side of them, but he made the effort to conceal all of his implants with hair. His brown eyes were constantly searching the room; even from the small corner booth he'd motioned me towards, he was watching everyone and everything.

Abel was rolling cigarettes again as he watched me get out my interview materials. He did this obsessively... whenever his hands were free, he would pull out a pouch of tobacco, or dried leaves of any sort, and begin to roll them into cigarettes. He never smoked them that I knew, just rapidly and mindlessly rolled cigarettes... sometimes, he said, thousands an hour. He would zone out, thinking about things long past, lost in the memories conjured up by a scent or sound, and come to only when night fell and he was out of paper and tobacco, a pyramid of cigarettes next to him.

I had taped the mics to both our throats, noting the flutter of his pulse as I did so... should he decide I was trying to kill him, he could kill me before I could react. I always let him choose which mic I taped to my throat, and did that one first. Last time, I had to explain it to him for three minutes, and tape both to my throat before he would even consider allowing me to tape one to his... and he held my windpipe while I did it. Nerve-wracking.
I turned on the machine, careful to move slowly and let him watch me do so. I cleared my throat, and started the disc. “This is Irvin Masters, and I am interviewing Abel Baker.”

Abel broke in. “No, dammit, no one is named Irvin. Stop using that stupid made-up name. No one believes you. I'm going to call you Charlie, because it sounds better than Irvin.”
I waited a moment to see if he would continue. “This is 'Charlie', and I am interviewing Abel Baker. This is the second session. This time, Abel, I would like to speak about how you came to have your M.O.M. implants, and how you feel about them.” We'd talked about this, but he still tenses when I ask the question, and is silent for a minute before he speaks.


“My mind was taken away by a mercenary doctor in western Missouri. I'd been raised run cattle in the Flint Hills of Kansas, but a mercenary band came through and shooting at people seemed a better way to make a fortune than shooing at flies and whistling at cows. I had fifteen years worth of enthusiasm to offer them, a steady hand with a rifle and a sure seat on a horse, but that was it. We'd all heard of Crazies and heard them called Momma's Boys and the like, but when the doctor offered me Mind Over Matter implants, saying that they'd make me so fast I'd react before I knew what happened, so strong I'd hurt things without trying, and sharper than I ever believed possible, I didn't have the letters to put things together.... M.O.M... Mind Over Matter spells MOM means Momma. No one ever told me that and if those Dead Boys want to kill me for teaching people that much reading, they might as well make half the Burbs into Crazies. It sounded better than being a juicer, 'cause I didn't want to die young, and he glossed over the fact that he would take my mind away from me. So I went under the knife, and came out with these.”

I reach up and tap my cylinders, watching his eyes draw towards them. He's better than most, not staring at them, but he chooses silly fake names. Irvin. Nobody's really named Irvin, and I don't need to be psychic to figure that out; I can smell the lie on him, hear it every time he says it and pauses for that nanosecond. Good thing he's now named Charlie, or I'd have to be mad at him.

“They were everything Doc said they would be. I was faster than I knew what to do with, and strong enough to wrestle cattle, and could run all day; it was wonderful. The crew started to teach me things, and everyone gave me a healthy bit of respect... I figured it was because I was learning so fast, doing so well. If I seemed a bit less inhibited than usual, so what? I was young and free for the first time, and who wouldn't be a bit freer of action and word when they could do so much, so well? There were days I would cartwheel through camp, just for the sheer JOY of living.”

“We saw combat a few times, and went into bigger towns... and that's where things started to get bad. In camp, people kept a wary eye on me. In town, people saw these horrid Cans and walked away. Stores closed. Bars served me in the street. I learned that I had become a Crazy, and it started to affect me pretty bad... I started to worry that I would go Crazy, and how I would go Crazy. I knew every Crazy goes Crazy in their own special way, and I was wondering what my way of Crazy would be... would I start fearing things I shouldn't fear, or would I start staring into the sun for hours at a time, trying to see if it was a giant piece of gold, like I heard one Crazy over in Lawrence was supposed to be doing? Or would I just go Crazy and start hunting down and killing people?”

“After a while, people in our little company informed me that I'd been in my tent for about two weeks, barely eating or talking to anyone, just mumbling to myself and staring at the walls; they'd hosed me off a couple times, when the smell got too bad, but I hadn't seemed to notice. That's when I realized that that's how I was going Crazy... I was going Crazy by worrying about going Crazy.” I was starting to get worked up, but I couldn't slow down, the momentum was too strong. “It's at that point that I realized that I could FEEL the Cans eating at my brain, and rebuilding it the way they wanted it to be. They chew and chew and chew and shit and shit and shit and when they're done, all that's left is reconstituted brain,” I realized I was ranting but I couldn't stop “with parts touching that aren't supposed to be touching and thinking things that aren't meant to be thinking and doing things that normal people aren't meant be doing and seeing things that can't be seen because they haven't been seen yet, or have happened so deep in someone's head that can't even be seen, even if you pry off the top of their head with a crowbar and look inside. I did that to another Crazy when he tried to take my lunch, once, tore his cans open, looking for the knives inside them, and the glue that they use to build brains back together again, but there was just wires and circuits and blood and he kept screaming that I was taking his magic away when all I was doing was opening the damned Cans that eat his brains.”

I watched in morbid fascination as Abel ranted and, seemingly without his noticing, his left hand reached out, grabbed a fork from the table and drove it through his right hand and into the wood below. He grunted through gritted teeth, and squeezed his eyes shut as he ripped the fork out of the table. He quickly wrapped a napkin around his right hand, but it was soon soaked with blood. He smiled weakly at me. “Sorry, Charlie. I have been convinced for some years now that my left hand is trying to kill me. I don't think it likes hearing me talk about these things. Should we try again another day?”

“How about two days from now, same time, this table, if it's available?” I watched as he nonchalantly cleaned the blood from the fork on another napkin.

“Sure. Two days. And maybe, then, you'll tell me more about your dimension.” His eyes were a little odd at that one, like he was trying to catch me in something... I thought I felt a touch on my mind.

“I'm from this dimension, Abel... but you can ask me some questions once I've gotten a bit more information for the article I'm working on, ok?”

He smiled enigmatically. “Sure.” He got up, left something... it looked like some coins... with the bartender, and left. As I finished up my notes (verbally; too risky to carry writing materials in the Burbs), I looked at the table; the tines of the fork weren't long, but he'd driven them deep enough into the table that blood was dripping through. What kind of damage had he done to his hand?

My left hand is trying to kill me; I can't cut it off, of course, because that would leave it free to act.  So, instead, I keep it connected, thinking I'm not onto it. It does things like breaking my hand every so often, just to remind me of how much it hates me. I'm never certain why my left hand hates me, but I know that if I asked it, it would lie, so I'm forced to let it keep hating me in silence.

As I walk through town, I feel the damn Cans commanding my right hand's muscles, twitching them so as to set the bone. There's a moment of searing pain, then I'm floating happily, quietly. I walk the streets, enjoying the sunshine and the feeling of floating; it's nice to not worry about... something. I know I worry about things, but the release from it as endorphins flood my brain and block out everything but bright sun and warm breeze, which doesn't smell at all like human feces if I don't want it to; I can ignore the smell of death and decay if I choose to just smell the flowers growing in gardens in the Old Town. 'Cause everyone's your friend, in the Chi-Town Burbs, and everything looks beautiful when you're young and Crazy. The streets are paved with diamonds, and there's just so much to see...

Something slams into my side, yanking me out of my euphoric fugue; it's now a twilit semi-darkness, and I wonder where the day went. I look at whoever attacked me, but all I see is a dark and menacing shape in the red-tinged semi-darkness. It mumbles something unintelligible... a spell? DEMON! I noticed a trashcan as I looked at its foulness, so I grab that and proceed to bludgeon the demon's head with the steel can. Head, head, body, knocking it to the ground where it continued to hurl ineffective spells at me! Horrid beast, so deep in the city! I slam the can down on its legs, and draw my knife, preparing to finish it when I am hit from behind. Another beast has tackled me, this one stinking of sweaty armor and raw animal smells; my knife is knocked free, and I'm forced to grapple with the snarling monster, trying to keep its horrific jaws away from my throat. It clamps its paws around my neck, its face darting close, so I feed it my traitorous left arm, scrabbling at its hard carapace for anything that can be used against it. It bears some magical device at its waist... a rod or mace of some kind... and as my vision begins to fade, I rip it free and club the beast in the head, again and again and again and again and again and again and again until I realize that I should have passed out from lack of breath if it still lives.

I crawl out from beneath its stink... ozone and cooked beast and the smells of raw beastly fluids, and hear more creatures approach... I can hear them scrabble across the ground, hear them growl amongst themselves as they seek their monstrous comrade. I cannot be here. The energy that drove me to kill the demons has fled; now I am just tired, and know that I can be too easily killed. I run, clutching that mystic rod in my right hand, keeping my left arm close to my chest in lieu of a bandage, walking away from the two corpses battered in the darkness.

I awake the next(?) morning smelling of the cesspool I must have passed through to confuse my trail. My left arm is swollen thickly with infection, and I'm oozing something from both my broken hand and the bite-marks on my opposite forearm; I can barely move the fingers on either hand, and everything feels hot to the touch. I can feel the edges of a burning, throbbing pain from it, but my Cans are taking most of that from me... I bless them, even though I know I wouldn't be here without them. I look to the mystic weapon I took from the demon last night, and see only a neural mace, such as the Dead Boys and their doggies wear. I know what has happened, and I feel my body shaking, though my mind cannot connect with the event clearly enough to grapple with it as firmly as I did that creature in the alley last night. Creature? Or man? Thoughts flicker in at me, things that it... he... must have been thinking before I killed him. An image of a girl, so heartbreakingly perfect that I can't help but sob; papers signed, a worker bribed, his fear as a monster of a man destroyed his little life with a trash can in a dark alley.

Unable to use my left arm (how did I get up here last night?), I drop straight down from the hammock, and the landing jars me so badly that I nearly black out... I've been hurt worse than I thought. I can feel the Cans trying to fix what there is, but they cannot fight against whatever was in that mouth, that cesspool last night; I picture them trying, in their bigness, to squash something as small as the germs that are eating me, and giggle as I realize it's now a race... do the germs eat my body before the Cans eat my mind? I stagger to a bar, barely aware of people nearby, only grateful that they get out of my way. Halfway there, I realize that I'm using the mace as a crutch, adding dirt to the blood and hair that already cling to it, but I cannot stop. Can't stop, keep going. Can't stop, keep going. Can't stop, keep going. Can't stop, keep going.

I shoulder the door open with my right side, and stumble up to the barman, staring at him blearily. I don't know if there are others here. I don't care. I order a knife and a bottle of vodka, and pay whatever it is that he asks. I don't know. I don't care. I cut the arm open from elbow to the base of my finger, listening to the bartender retch as the stench overwhelms him; the blood is green as it oozes out. I pour a fifth of the vodka over the arm, washing away the blood and pus. There's a sound of screams... I think they're mine. I become aware of Charlie standing by me... were we supposed to meet today? Or tomorrow? Had I slept a day away? He gets another two to hold me down while he pours on more vodka... I can see white bone and yellow fat. He starts to stitch my wound... where did the needle come from?

The pain recedes. I can stand without a wave of pain, but moving my left side hurts. I hear a whisper go around the room... something about the boy should be dead, the dead boy... and everyone quietly leaves; back doors, windows, maybe through the floor as ghosts. I know I should leave, too. My right hand still drags the mace, though I doubt I could wield it in anger, or even mild annoyance. I push open the door, stepping into the light breeze you get in the lee of the City. The Dead Boy and his doggies see my mace, my blood-stained bandages and clothes, and don't say a word. My brain screams at my body, insists that we fight, or dodge, or fall, but I'm doing my best just to stand... even falling would be too much. Again, I catch the tinge of ozone on the air... these are lasers, definitely, not ion guns... and watch as the Deadie and his doggies lazily raise their weapons, and the order to fire drawls itself out into a year-long croon. I watch the lasers trudge towards me, so slowly, and wonder why my life isn't flashing before my eyes... and I think, as half my chest is vaporized, that it's because


Irvin Masters packed his things. He would've liked another session with Able Baker, to learn more about what drove a man whose mind was so thoroughly in thrall of MOM-induced psychosis, but that wasn't possible... even had he the skill, there wasn't enough of a corpse left to interrogate. He hoped, however, that peace came to him, and that his mind came back in the end.

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