The days were long and the nights were brief flashes of ignorance in a night of spent lives and destroyed careers. Patri's hands were grubby, her pants caked in flakes of dried mud from her day on the farm. Part of her wondered what the counsellor would think, but the woman had ordered her to come directly from the fields.
The thought of seeing another shrink left her confused. More often than not she had gotten something from her appointments with them. But she suspected it was never what the therapists had intended. Patri was an interface, holding back what she really felt or who she really was, and providing only those functions and operations that were expected of a young woman in society. But she wasn't in society. She was in prison now. Prison rules, prison interface. Not Patri.
The room was cool compared with the inescapable sun that burned down from the skies above Pamos. Outside was a dead planet, its fields only now starting to bear food that could sustain the local population of displaced colonists and refugees. Occasionally when she'd been out working and seen some of the villagers from Alloc strolling by she'd thought she could see people she'd once known. Was that the boy from the space station? Was that her mathematics teacher from the science station? Was that her mother? They were false impressions, ghostly static from a channel she could never fully tune into. The sound would flicker in, a few words she thought she recognized from a song that had once been a worm in her ear and then it would leave again, fading into the hiss of just another face passing by looking on with an empty curiosity, uncaring but needing to see what a prisoner looked like.
Seated, Patri looked down and, rubbing her hands along her pants, she watched the flakes of mud drop off onto the floor, covering it with a mess of browns and blacks – not white any more. As the last of the soft pattering of sand subsided the door clicked, opening to reveal a woman in her early forties.
“Good evening,” she said, closing the door behind her, “Miss...Patricia?”
Was that her name now? “Patri is fine,” she said.
“Right. Patri. I'm Doctor Emma Fengjian. I see you've been inside before so I imagine you know we expect to see our inmates regularly to check up on their mental health.”
It was the old line she'd heard hundreds of times before. “I'm very pleased with your progress.” “We're thrilled with the steps you've taken.” “You've made a fantastic recovery.” Had she ever even moved?
The shrink was talking now, reading her file, mentioning her history of deviance and her propensity toward computer crime. “One thing that has been a factor again and again,” she was saying, “is this slave tag that was beamed into your cranium. I'd like to explore that.”
Patri said nothing. It had been explored before. It was a part of her. That was what the doctor had said when she was thirteen. She thought back to the moment when the voices had stopped for a while. She'd been in the brig of a large starship, the vessel that had been chasing the dog-men. She'd wanted to kill them all for doing this to her. “It can't be removed,” she said finally.
“I see. Why do you believe there is an electrical device inside your head?”
This was an angle Patri had never heard before. Every time the topic had come up it had been accompanied by shaking heads and apologies. There was no way to remove the slave tag, the specialists would say, without damaging her brain. But none of them knew what life was like with the tag there. They didn't hear the voices or meet the imposters who claimed to be her mother and her father or have the dreams of the monsters crashing into her room at night and smashing her chair against the frame of her bed.
“Because that's what the doctors said,” Patri said.
“Which doctors?” Emma said.
“The doctors at station Tango Sierra,” Patri said.
There was a flurry of writing on the padd, the stylus darting this way and that. Patri could feel a faint throbbing again and an emptiness in her stomach. When was the last time she'd eaten? Each beat of her heart came with the accompaniment of dim sounds and faint lights at the back of her mind.
“Do you know their names? Do you even know why you were there?”
Why had she been there? During her childhood she'd been hospitalized after an attack on New Cyprus. The Grendellai had abducted her parents while they were in the middle of another screaming match and when they'd tried to take her they'd implanted the slave tag and then left. She'd been too young.
“I woke up there, okay? I was just ten.”
The sounds continued, calm throbbing lights jumping to the flick flick of the stylus across the padd.
“And how old are you now?”
Was she for real? She had everything she needed to know about her on her padd and in that [...]ed file folder.
More flicking and throbbing and then, “I think I should be honest with you. I'm here as part of a study in computational psychology.” She was another research scientist wanting to pick Patri's brain. Patri nodded, resting her eyes on the padd, trying to glean s[...]s of information.
“Let's go for a walk,” Emma said.
This was unorthodox. Patri got up, bits of dirt falling from her pants again When they opened the door and stepped into the hallway she noticed for the first time the trail of mud flakes she'd left on her way here. As they walked she imagined that more dirt was coming from her. But she was relieved for now that the throbbing had subsided.
“So,” the therapist turned doctor was saying, “Aren't you curious about the nature of my work?”
“No.” She wasn't. She could care less about the nature of Emma's work. They were heading into an area that was off limits to inmates now. The prison staff used it mostly for recreation. Looking from side to side, she could see attractive looking off-duty personnel training on high-class gym equipment. She half expected them to say something about her being here but nobody even looked at her. The place had a certain quiet to it, a silence Patri hadn't felt in years. Sure, she could hear the sounds of the weights and the conversations between the staff. But there was no harsh sun, or a sense that she was being pursued by someone or that she herself was the pursuer. She was Patri, walking beside this scientist in a calm and shiny office space.
“I'm interested in human-computer interaction,” Emma said. Patri nodded. She could hear the whisk whisk of the sanitation bots cleaning up the floor a few metres behind where she walked, eradicating any evidence she'd ever been here. They came to a large door. Beside it a computer panel blinked, “PROGRAM READY.”
Emma stopped walking and looked straight into the door. “You see,” she began and then paused. Patri could tell she was thinking about something. The throbbing was beginning again. “I want to help you finally reach the end of the machine so you can find yourself again.”
Patri looked at the woman and scrunched her eyes. She sounded so artificial sometimes, as though she were reading from a script. Emma stepped back from the door. The panel still blinked. Patri stepped forward. Part of her hoped that inside this room would be a surgical table with doctors ready to cut her skull open and get rid of that [...]ed slave tag. She didn't care if it killed her. It was the last reminder of the Grendellai, their first beachhead in conquering and enslaving her. Another step forward, and she triggered the door sensors.
She stepped into the dark room, a holodeck, she realized. Her head throbbed more and she could see the lights blinking. She could hear Emma behind her. “Are you comfortable, Patri?”
She looked around. The room was dark, the yellow grid covering each of the walls. She was as comfortable as she could be, a trail of dirt still dotting the black floor.
She could see Emma looking around, like she was waiting for something to happen. But the pattering of the mud flakes was the only thing breaking the silence. She became more self conscious as time went by. There was a sighing sound and the dirt on the ground was gone. Emma gasped slightly and began with fake professionalism as usual, “How do you feel?”
She felt like hell. Her brain was throbbing and the pulsing rhythm of the black streak that made everything wrong crashed harder.
The door hissed closed.
“Could you elaborate on that?”
She wanted it all to stop. She wished someone would just cut it out of her. Emma gasped again. Turning, Patri saw a knife right in front of her face. Holding it was one of the dog-men.
“This is what you want,” the Grendellai growled.
Was it? To think about cutting into herself was easier than to be presented with the thought manifest right there in front of her. She shook her head, fear oozing through the cracks in her walls.
“Patri.” Emma again. “Patri?”
She couldn't move. She could hear the gears squealing and grinding, train cars sliding off the rails and falling into an abyss below.
“Make up your mind!” The dog.
Anger blossomed inside of her, a dagger sprouting in her hand. The throbbing beat harder, a rhythmic pounding driving her forward. She lunged at the creature, pressing her small by comparison form into the monster's midsection, and drove the knife into his stomach. There was a groaning sound from everywhere inside of him as she felt the dog's muzzle fall on top of her head. She smelled the stench of his wheezing breaths as the side of his opened mouth showered her hair with saliva and then blood.
“Patri!” Emma, desperate and shocked.
She grabbed at the dog and felt herself lifting him over her shoulder. This was instinct, a raw need that gnawed at her for satisfaction.
“Patri I need you to talk to me. What are you feeling? I can't be sure this is working if--”
How could Emma ever understand? Patri was doing what she'd wanted to do all her life. She was liberating herself finally, trekking into a new life. The ground sloped gently upward, fog parting in front of them and obscuring their path behind. She could still see Emma in the corner of her eye, walking beside her, a pleading look in her eyes. Patri carried the limp Grendellai over her shoulder to... where?
“Patri, I need you to talk to me. I'm here to help you.”
She wasn't. She was just like all the others, singing a chorus of empty jargon to accompany the arc of Patri's life.
Soon it was raining. As they reached the top Patri saw what she wanted. She set the dog down on it as a torrent of rain drenched his wound. She could see Emma staring at her, forlorn bewilderment pressed down by a soaked matt of hair, shaking her head in disbelief. She still held her knife. She wanted to cut at this dying Grendellai. She wanted to gouge its eyes out. She wanted to slice at its nose and draw blood from the vulnerable moist black skin. But something was wrong. There was a choked sound coming from his throat then a squeak and then a ruff and a bark. She couldn't believe it. The thing was a dog now. He was just a dog.
“What's the matter?” a male voice asked from beside her.
She turned to see someone who looked vaguely familiar. “I just want you to have what you want.”
“Are you...,” she began.
He held up a broken wooden chair, rivulets of rain trailing down its legs.
“You were scared,” the man said. “But it's okay now honey.” The dog went on whimpering as the man continued, “Come back to New Cyprus with me. It's safe now.”
She shook her head slowly. How could he have been here? Daddy stood there, visible clearly through the driving rain. He wasn't the imposter she'd seen so many times greeting her at the door to the clinic, or appearing in her room in the science station when she was half asleep, whispering, “Don't you remember me? It's Daddy.”
“Oh honey.” Mommy stood beside him. Patri shook her head again, another part of it hanging in the space in front of her. They were supposed to be dead. That was the only thing that could have explained the imposters and the spies. They were taunting her, tempting her with a paradise she could never come home to. “We missed you.”
She ran to them, tears streaming down her cheeks, sobbing as she felt their arms around her. She was safe now.
“Honey, what did you do?”
She pulled back and turned her head to see the white dog, pink blotches pouring rivers of blood down from the rocky platform where it lay. She looked down to see the reddish mud starting to envelop their feet.
“Patri, are these your parents?” It was Emma again. She turned to her and nodded, unable to wipe the grin and the tears from her face.
The shrink smiled and nodded, padd still in hand, stylus scribbling wildly. Patri in her reunion was still just another rat in a cage. A shriek and she turned to see four Grendellai holding her mother and father at gunpoint. She shot them a determined look. She was an adult now. A thunderous crack, a bolt of lightning and the monsters disappeared, vaporized by...what? Daddy was speechless, frozen but not surprised. Mommy stood motionless. Why didn't they react? Like statues they stood there, mannequins in a store front porting merchandise Patri hadn't ever imagined she'd own.
She was frozen in space, rain spattering off her head. The dog was silent now, dead and sacrificed.
“Patri,” Emma said, “I'm sorry,” She turned again to see the shrink. She stood there with arms hanging by her sides. Had she done this? She looked back to the frozen forms of Mommy and Daddy. Would she be able to get them back if she eliminated Emma too?
“Patri!” She turned back to see last of Emma's head as she disappeared like bread into a toaster. The gaping earth closed behind her with a rumble. A deep, hollow sigh echoed all around her.
“Daddy!” she called out to the frozen form in front of her. The sighing grew, the res cogitans puked up all over the wall dripping off on its own. “No!”
The yellow grid was back, an empty room. Its lone occupant stood soaked in water that slowly faded as the emitters de-integrated the holographic substance from her body, until all that was left was Patri, staring out into a blank room, her real water still soaking her shirt, non-human elements gone. She stared at the flakes of dried mud scattered senselessly everywhere. Her mind, for the first time in her life, was an abyss that could never stare back.
She held out her hand wanting to clasp the god she'd conjured to get her through life. But the knocking never came and the wooden door was gone. She couldn't dream up peace beyond understanding or scandalous penetrations of her reality by an eternal divine other. Seated on the floor, dirt all around her, Patri Jia Kom held her head in her hands and wept.
[2010: MAR-APR] *WINNER* Excision
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