Two roads diverged on the interstate, and I... (Highway Poem #3)
tailights in dying light
on highway byway
potholes but heart whole
of the next year
as i steer
near the stream
on a roll with father role
once weighed other way
but soul feels light alight
and driving home
The Voice of Reason
Donald Gerber was often stung by casual remarks. He was considered a good reporter because he was observant and thorough about following up on his observations, and the tidbit that the entire xenoneurology department of Oxford University was made of practicing Buddhists struck him as a good story. Not Pulitzer Prize material, but good stock for a slow news day, or maybe a Sunday feature.
He attempted to meet with the head of the department but was politely rebuffed. Phone calls to the various scholars went unanswered. Then, remembering his T. E. Lawrence, he chose to cross a square along three sides by calling in a favor from a cleaning lady, and learned the address of Dr. Richard Tanner.
Evening found Gerber on the sidewalk outside a comfortable set of flats, dressed for rain in his rumpled Burberry and Stetson fedora. He chewed peppermint gum and waited for his target, a lanky American dressed in tweeds with a tangle of hair.
Dr. Tanner was discomfited at being buttonholed outside his apartment, but Gerber knew from experience how to behave suavely. Also, Tanner was an American, and had an innate tolerance of the press. Soon Gerber was inside the man's suite, enjoying a cup of excellent tea, and probing gently at the secrets of the Brandon Department of Xenoneurology at Oxford University.
“No, we don't recruit exclusively from Buddhists,” said Dr. Tanner. “In point of fact, most converted at the same time.”
“How did that come about?”
“I really fail to see how the matter is newsworthy,” said Dr. Tanner.
“Let me assure you from my point of expertise that it would be of interest to our readers,” said Gerber. “The story can either be that the Department is made of converted Buddhists who wish to be secretive about it, or, it could be a story full of facts and human interest because you talk about yourself. Great heavens, to think that so many people chose Buddhism at the same time? I'd think you'd want to share the news.”
“I was remarking on what drove us to become Buddhists.”
“How on earth does believing in what you can prove, lead one to Buddhism?”
Dr. Tanner was quiet for a while. Gerber let him argue with himself. Finally Dr. Tanner said, “I must go back at least ten years, to a conversation I had in San Francisco with Dr. Hsien Domei, a founder of xenoneurology. Bear with me.”
I met Dr. Hsien Domei in the last week of the great man's life. We were there for some silliness, a conference on the notion of Selfdom, which should have been reserved for the mystics of Esalen, but for the professional notables it managed to draw. I wasn't in that category of course, being just a graduate student eager for the chance to come home for a few days and do a little exploration of a scholastic nature.
I was waiting at the BART terminal by the airport, watching a few of the rowdier homeless being ousted by the police, and trying to relax with a cup of hot flavored water.
“Please have some of mine.”
“Hmm?” I said, rather rudely.
An old man was offering me an insulated bottle. “You were wincing at what the vending machine calls a cup of tea. Have some of mine. It is from Assam, and is properly brewed.”
I gratefully accepted his THERMOS and poured a cup of excellent tea. “My name is Richard.”
“I am Domei.” He settled back in the terminal chair a little more comfortably.
“Not Dr. Hsien Domei, the xenoneurologist?”
“Ah, I am recognized. I am no longer interested in xenoneurology. I focus my days on curing human illness, though I have agreed to participate in this local conference on Self.”
I was a little shaken to hear the founder of my science renounce his work so casually. “But you are the creator of the cephalod computer! You won the Nobel Prize! How can you deny your genius? I ask as a xenoneurologist in training.”
“Ah. Then you'll find out.” He leaned forward. “And I am not the creator of the cephaloid brain. I should make that clear and I should like to make it clear to others, in the little time left me. Have you got more than a little while?
“I began in China in the bad old days of superpower competition before the Pacific War. We – I was part of a committee, nothing could be done outside of a committee in China in that time – we were intrigued with the sheer processing power of the squid brain. To alter several million chemoreceptors in a single second, to change the appearance of the squid to match whatever lay beneath it, spoke to us of more sordid, what are called, more practical considerations.
“We gathered our squid, and began to operate. We mutated them into cephaloids. We gave them a coherent processing language, and set them to simple calculations performed rapidly.”
“Aren't all squids cephalods?” I asked.
“Please, I insist on 'cephaloid',” said Dr. Hsien. “Our mutants are as different from a natural squid as homo sapiens differs from the australopithecines.
“As we progressed we became concerned with brainwave proficiency. There was the high-end beta waves, signifying maximum effort, which pleased us. There was enough alpha wave activity to signify adequate function. But there was too much gamma wave activity to satisfy us; it indicated, to us, a waste of resources. We wanted to boost the alpha function with reduction of gamma activity.
“The Ho threshhold!” I cried somewhat too eagerly.
“She would be displeased to learn you call it that, as it indicates a hurdle to be hopped rather than a real barrier of nature,” said Dr. Hsien sternly. “The whole problem was beyond the best minds of human science in the matter. Where do you school, young man?”
“Oxford. Rhodes Scholar.”
“Oh dear, a prude and an optimist,” said Dr. Hsien. “Forgive my judgment, I am old.
“As we failed to breach this “threshold” in several mutant generations we brought a nonhuman opinion in the matter. I programmed the cephaloids to design their own future neural network. That is why I decline to be called their creator. They produced themselves.
“How are you growing brains at Oxford?” he asked me.
“Nanite construction of a protein membrane for the ganglia assembly,” I said immediately.
“Orderly, regular polyhedral construction?”
“Shoddy! Very sad! You have much to learn, and you consider Ho's dilemma a “threshhold”! Young man, I haven't my math with me, but consider please a symphonic approach to the problem, with the bass notes arranged first in series of maximum efficiency, and the ganglia for the higher brain functions arrayed upon that infrastructure. You'll see a boost in performance.
“This construction does require the use of a computer to calculate the membrane structure as a complex fractal equation. So our cephaloids programmed the next generation mutant cephalods for greater efficiency and higher processing power.”
“And they broke the Ho threshold?” I asked eagerly as I made notes in my phone.
“They did not. Perhaps our orchestrated brains are a dead end to avoid after all. Gamma frequency production increased and alpha frequency decreased. We saw a dip in operations per second.
“For this reason, among others, the Central Committee for Science ordered an end to the project, and the destruction of all my cephaloids.
“My cephaloids. The thought was treason against the State.”
I was silent, knowing something of what came next.
“So,” said Dr. Hsien with a deep breath, “I defected to Russia.”
“And brought the cephaloids with you?”
“Better I say nothing about the exploits of certain elements of the Russian state. I will say, young man, that Russia worries less about how success will play out publicly, and more about getting results that matter.”
Dr. Hsien looked a little sour. “Yes, they wanted results. They put me on “One-Two”, which was their name for a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States. It would open with electromagnetic pulse bombardment of the American homeland, which, since the weapons would be orbital in deployment, would involve frying all standard Russian orbital computers within view as well. They were glad to have me on board, as, you may not know, xenoneurological computers are immune to military EMP bombardment.”
I remembered with unease that the Russian government had switched its space program over to biological computers some years before.
Dr. Hsien cleared his throat and continued. “I betrayed them too. Not out of any qualms about “One-Two” I'm afraid, but again, through devotion to my little pets. Would you like some lunch?”
We ate quickly from the food court. Dr. Hsien ate only brown rice and steamed vegetables. “I am a strict Buddhist these days.”
“Really? I am an atheist.”
“Not an agnostic? You must rethink the matter, young man.”
I quickly steered the conversation back to the topic that interested me. “You said you betrayed the Russians?”
“Yes. I abused their trust by focusing on what I considered the main problem, which had nothing to do with their objectives. I ran into what you called a “threshold” of resistance to boosted processing power, no matter what I brought to bear. Because of my renown, and the devotion of the Russian government to its pet project, I was allowed to rummage through the extensive workshops of the Sixth Directorate. A treasure of stolen technologies.
“Have you ever heard of the Oracle? It is Japanese. It is simply an organic radio transmitter/receiver membrane. It was stolen by the KGB and discarded for its extremely low power and short range. However, for my illicit purpose, to allow cephalods to share brainwaves within the confines of an aquarium tank, it suited very well. I rigged a generation of cephaloids with Oracles, and let them talk to each other by impressing brainwaves remotely.”
“Of a sort. And the result was to me a greater failure! No alpha production, horrible drop in operations per second, and high-beta emphasis to the detriment of their health! They were killing themselves sharing gamma frequency brainwaves!”
Dr. Hsien paused. “I called you a prude and an optimist. You probably will not approve of my next step. However, you strike me as a promising young man, and if you can overcome your American prejudices, you may go far in science.”
“I can try,” I said.
“It isn't worth it,” said Dr. Hsien. “Anyhow, I found a simple-minded, I mean medically retarded, boy, I believe his name was Piotr, and I surgically outfitted him with an Oracle, and gave him SCUBA gear, and put him in the tank--”
“You experimented with human subjects?” I cried.
“Not so loud, please. I said you were a prude. For a proper survey, I wanted seven or so, but the Russians were already suspicious of what psychic squid had to do with frying American cities, and I didn't dare press the issue. Piotr was the only subject. Anyway, I put him in the tank, and let him vocalize the basic thoughts of my wayward cephaloids.”
“What? Their thoughts were intelligible? What did they say?”
Dr. Hsien turned his wizened face and locked eyes with me. He pursed his lips.
His train arrived, and he bade me goodbye courteously. I sat there a good while longer, sipping cold tea from Assam, and considering the difference between atheism and agnosticism. News of his death a few days later resolved something within me, and I began a correspondence with a Lama which continues to this day.
Dr. Tanner fell silent, and poured a fresh cup of tea for himself and his guest. Gerber said, “That explains your conversion, Dr. Tanner, but the entire department?”
“Ah. Well, you see, it took us ten years to grow a fractally calculated superbrain like Dr. Hsien's cephaloids, and they duplicated his results. 'OM.' That was enough, surely?”
“They apprehend the Buddhist meditations instinctively without instruction,” said Gerber slowly. “I see why that would impress your department as a philosophical proof.”
“I wonder if you do,” said Dr. Tanner. “Let me suggest, if you do see, that you join us in keeping quiet about it? We have no interest at this time in broadcasting that artificial sentience is Buddhist by preference. We have a lot of thinking to do on the ethics of continual mutation of the cephaloid superbrain, for instance. We were agreed on discretion, and I'm sorry that you got any inkling of our unanimity of purpose.”
“Then you don't want people drawn to your faith by an article?”
“Precisely. The worthy will be drawn in good time, and the unworthy will live out their days in samsara, the illusion of the World. I appeal to you to place yourself in the former category.”
“I'll think it over,” said Gerber. “It goes against the grain as a reporter, but I'm enough of a true skeptic to be impressed.”
“That is the response of a worthy candidate for enlightenment,” said Dr. Tanner. “Now if you'll excuse me, I did not plan for our discussion, and I have an appointment I should keep. Please come again some other time. I mean that sincerely.”
Out in the rain, Gerber decided to walk home. He had to think about what he believed in.
I have, dear reader, removed this work because I am submitting it to a journal that publishes historical fiction. While they accept previously published works, I still thought it poor form to have the whole text publicly available here. I was honored to have been an editor's pick for this monthly challenge, and the kind words many of you shared were deeply gratifying. The story having been posted over six months ago, I am confident that I am not depriving any future readers, but if you were really looking for this story, I would hate to leave you disappointed, so DM me. Again, many thanks. - rlove327
When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers
It began with a subtle change in the air; a vibration. Not like a summer breeze, nor a winter wind. More like the night air disturbed by butterfly wings. But with something more. As if the air had received a small shock. Followed by another. And another. But no one took notice since the change was so infinitesimal as to be nonexistent.
Until it wasn’t.
Seven-year old Jake Johnson was the first to notice the effects of the atmospheric oddities, though he didn’t realize it. He just thought little Danny Martin had the cooties. Little Danny, in tears, ran home to his mother.
“Mama, look,” he said, crying, pointing to his arm.
“What’d you do, sweetheart?” she asked, thinking he must have fallen.
“Nothing, Mama. I was playing with Jake and then he pointed at me and started laughing, saying I had the cooties. I said no I didn’t and went to punch him, but he jumped back, laughing and told me not to touch him ’cause he didn’t want cooties, too.”
“Did you fall down?” Mrs. Martin asked, taking out the alcohol and some cotton balls.
“No, Mama. I was just playing and then Jake pointed and I saw the skin was peeling and then I felt the pain I didn’t notice while I was playing and then I came inside and…”
“Okay, baby. Let Mama clean it for you.” But as Mrs. Martin reached out to wipe little Danny’s arm, the skin began to disintegrate. “Merciful heaven! What in the world…”
“Mama!” little Danny screamed in agony.
Mrs. Martin watched helplessly as her little Danny’s skin ruptured, bled, peeled, melted away leaving him a crumpled, molten mass of human tissue. Simultaneously, the air around her was pierced with the screams of tortured anguish as every citizen of her town suffered the consequences of an event that had nothing to do with them, yet affected every living being on the planet.
Mrs. Martin watched her son die before she too became a footnote to a history none would live to write…or read.
Clammy hands, and a heart beat that I can’t soothe.
I’ve thrown up so many times, and wanted to give in so many more.
All I want is to feel that calming, sweet, smokey release.
Ten years, of choking myself everyday in various degrees.
I feel like I’m coughing up my lungs,
and this is so much harder than I thought it would be.
My mind is racing, as fast as my heart.
My hands have searched through every bag, nook and cranny,
desperately trying to find something to poison myself slowly with.
I feel so low and ashamed, that it has come to this.
I’m safe now, and ready to let it all go.
I will try my best, and hopefully it shows.
The discomfort is real, but temporary too,
I just have to remind myself,
that I can make it through.
He sits still, but his lips haven't stopped forming words.
The breath barely escapes his lips; his voice is too quiet for anyone else to hear.
He whispers -- just barely -- the words that he has memorized.
The room stirs around him. Slanting and shifting with every syllable.
No one has come upstairs to find him yet, and no one dares interrupt his work.
His eyes open, and he tastes the room rather than sees it.
His body lurches forward as if pulled by strings, and his hands reach out, his fingers spread.
He collides with his workbench, and his eyes roll back into his head and his hands begin the tedious task: carving, painting.
The circular room spins, but no one exists to see it.
The windows seal themselves, the floor rattles.
His hands work at an impossible speed, trying to keep up with the visions in his mind.
A lizard--no, a woman--her skin scaled, her head round and smooth, and hands, feet with claws, beady yellow eyes and a stubborn jaw. Lips, eyebrows scrunched, a stomach that aches for a meal. And nostrils--flared with anger, a ring on three of her fingers, legs with muscles ripe for running. Intestines, liver, a sore heart, lungs--breath.
The silence screams to be heard.
He opens his eyes, cradles the figure in his hand: a freshly carved woman, a lizard, a being. Identical to what he saw in his mind.
He stands, the world steady now, and adds her to his collection.
come with me
so i followed
as i always have
like when I was ten
and my cousin told me to smoke this
and when I was seventeen
and my girfriend said
you have to go
i'm in debt
behind this man
down this dark alley
where i’ll probably die
and this is just how
i’ll alway be
sun to moon.
wilting like dead flowers,
our minds as dark as caves,
the roaring of the cowards
as we count down the days.
i know my mask is slipping
the rose petals will fall,
the game i've played is ripping,
and nightmares begin to crawl.
the sun turns into moon
and day turns into night,
this feeling of instant doom
overthrows the light.
i feel just like a shadow,
terrified of the darkness
though the light's always in the meadow
i can't feel, i'm heartless.
the galaxies are glowing
but i'm not basking in the light.
instead my heart is flowing
with thoughts i cannot fight.
my mind is shattered
damaged like broken glass,
ripped in shreds and tattered,
my dreams will never last.
I wasn’t asking you to date me
though I recommend
giving it a try
couldn’t help it
couldn’t keep the lie
and so he said
I know him
he’d never want a chick like you
he said I know him
and he knows what you went through
Well, I guess I’m
a sexual conquest you
I know I’m only good
if I’m the thing
so I’m a little salty
I’ll pour it in the wounds
watch his new family
and I hate you,
and I would want to fuck me
ff I had a dick
I’d only want to fuck me
see that’s the trick
It’s like the northern lights
and I’d ask you questions
but I don’t want to know
I’m just a body
just a mindset
with that poet’s
As my consciousness returns to me, I smell the sweet scent of my freshly washed linen. My eyes don’t quite open, but I can feel my silky sheets all around me. My head tosses in drowsy bliss and my arms flail to swim out of the covering. Once the blanket has fallen from my face, the sun hits my eyelids begging them to open. As I blinked my sleep away, I glanced down at my arms. Catching sight of what appear to be purple tentacles, I blink more furiously in an attempt to shake whatever trance I’ve been in. When the octopus arms before me still stand, I try to move them. They writhe and curl creepily up to my face and swipe my perplexed eyes. Feeling the rubbery suctions against my skin lead me to believe that this is not a dream.
I scream to the top of my lungs and jump out of bed. But, oh, what have I done that for? My legs! They look as those of a tyrannosaurus rex! I stomp and my bedroom shakes terribly, disturbing the books from my shelf. Scared of my own feet, I curl my toe, accidentally etching a deep scrape into my wooden floorboards. Stepping away in terror from that which I cannot escape, I press my back into the wall. Suddenly, I feel something crawling up my shoulder blades, tickling my neck. Jumping away with a shout, I realize that it is only my new long tail. Jet black and sheen like a cat, weaving every which way like it has a mind of its own.
Bringing my hands-- eh-- tentacles to my chest, I try taking a deep breath. But, what has happened to my chest? My rubbery grips find themselves brushing up against a feathery breast. Have I become a bird-octo-saurus-cat? My legs, my arms, my tail, my chest... Oh no. What has become of my face? I run into the bathroom, creating dents in my floor on the way. Coming face to face-- or snout to snout-- with my reflection, I notice my nose had become the trunk of an elephant, and my ears had been replaced with cricket antennae. My eyes had become compound like a fly, and mouth was now that of an anteater. Not to mention that my neck was now covered in fish gills. How shall I expect to work in such an outrageous condition? I guess I should call in. But, first, I must figure how to handle my phone with these hideously awkward arms...