|Part 4||HEA: Erosion Index|
Copyright (c) 1998 Phaedrus; All rights reserved
Warning: Violent material.
The opinions of the characters in this story are not those of the author.
The months came and went. On the whole, the humans in ^}'s care seemed to be adjusting well to their new forms--much better than average, ^} noted with pride. Many of them were still combative or depressed; but that was to be expected. Tragically, there had been three deaths; ^} still did not like to think about the fate of the third--the law student, Darrell. ^} had been concerned about him as a forfeiture risk; he had tried desperately to stimulate him, to console him, to involve him in anything that might distract him. But none of that had prepared him for the sight of Darrell's corpse. He had cut off his own ears with a hacksaw, and had nearly severed one of his feet as well before the blood loss finally took its toll. Was it truly a suicide, or an insane attempt to reverse the transformation? No one would ever know; there was no note, no explanation. But either way, the sheer senselessness of it had devastated ^}; he had had to abandon his duties for two full days, and retreat to the wilds of Canada, just to regain his balance, to remind himself of the greater good being served. The death shook him to the core, but it also redoubled his determination to do everything within his power to prevent such a thing from happening again.
\\ took the report of the death in the same way that he took reports of virtually everything else. He briefly considered it, decided that it had no immediate impact on the office, and lost interest. [Sorry you had to see something like that... they'll just snap like that sometimes. Nothing you can do about it. At least there's a bright side to it; he didn't decide to cut somebody else up like most of the wackos...]
^} was not surprised by this reaction; he had long since given up on expecting anything different from \\. He was reasonably competent at handling the logistics of running a field office, and that was all he was interested in. The purpose of the office, and of the entire operation, was clearly nothing but an unpleasant detail to him. He was thankful for ^}'s success with his clients, but only because it kept them out of the office, and because ^}'s intelligence and good results offset the apathy and incompetence of some of \\'s staff. He was clearly unconcerned in the reason for ^}'s success, and showed no interest at all in even hearing about ^}'s techniques, let alone passing them on to those higher up. So ^} did the best thing he could; he documented them carefully, and passed them on to anyone he met who showed interest. This quickly earned him a reputation as an eccentric; many of his fellow workers didn't understand why someone would choose to work so extensively with humans in the field in the first place, let alone expend such energy trying to understand their motivations. But, though many did not listen, there were always a few who did. And before long, there were several dozen nacalites--most at very low levels of the hierarchy, but a few higher up--receiving his weekly reports on his studies and techniques.
It was a small start, but a start nonetheless. It might be too late to have a meaningful effect on the current program; but perhaps, when his people looked back on this whole sad experience, they would see that his techniques were correct. And perhaps in the future, the next time a sentient race needed to be corrected, things would be different.
Paul Foster seemed to be adjusting as well as could be expected, given his character. Every month, he would greet ^} in his new trademark style--naked, with a bone or some other object in his teeth. He continued to be rude and insulting, but very attentive and responsive; the two of them would often continue their discussion on the legitimacy of the program. ^} sometimes wished that Paul would not pitch his criticisms on such a personal level; but their conversations fascinated him. More so than any of his other clients, Paul would say exactly what was on his mind, without any apparent attempt to spare his own feelings, and certainly with no attempt to spare ^}'s. He would explain his points at length given the least provocation--or sometimes without the least provocation. And he retained his curious aversion to lying.
On some occasions, ^} would observe his clients secretly, to gain a better understanding of their needs and behavior. On these occasions, when Paul believed he was alone, he seemed to be coping well. He would go about his business in largely the same fashion that he had before, and he continued to wear clothing. But ^} observed with satisfaction that he did seem to have accustomed himself to going barefoot, and did not show any sign that this discomforted him; unlike some of ^}'s other clients, he did not force himself to endure the discomfort of wearing shoes simply to reinforce his humanity. That was a very encouraging sign; it meant that stage two, at least, might go more smoothly than expected for Paul. And the technique of sensitizing the feet seemed to be proving very effective. He would have to employ it more broadly in stage two.
^} found himself greatly looking forward to his meetings with Paul; the insights they gave him into the human condition were fascinating, once they were separated from the abuse. The meetings became longer, sometimes an hour or more. One day in April, ^} found himself asking whether Paul would mind meeting every other week, rather than every month--and he was only mildly surprised when Paul accepted. ^} had long suspected that Paul looked forward to the meetings as much as he did, despite his shows of defiance. He had often considered asking Paul about it, but was afraid that the question alone might trigger Paul to cut the meetings short. And for some reason, ^} found the thought of that to be troubling... and not just because of the learning opportunity that would be lost.
That disturbed him. It was important to be as friendly and cooperative as possible to the clients. But it was also important, he knew, not to become emotionally attached to them; it could only hamper him, biasing his observations and his judgements. Even humans in similar occupations would agree to that. And that fact was only compounded by the practicalities of the situation; after all, any relationship would have to come to an end in less than four years. So it unnerved him to feel the beginnings of such an attachment forming, to any human... let alone a clear risk like Paul. But he was simply not in a position to pull back; there was too much still to be learned. And now that his work was finally being followed and appreciated--even by such a small audience--he could not afford to display a lack of confidence in his own abilities.
He would simply have to hope that confidence was justified.
June arrived, and ^} carried a heavy cardboard box to Paul's cabin. He hoped his timing was correct.
Paul looked at him and the box skeptically, and spat out the bone in his mouth. "And what, pray tell, is the occasion?"
"It is a gift, of sorts. I believe that things will be clearer if you open it."
"Great," Paul muttered. "It's not enough that I'm turning into a fucking wolf; now I get guessing games. Great." But he opened the box nonetheless, and found it full of books.
"If this is more of your idea of helpful literature, you've finally gone way over the edge."
"It is not my idea, actually. These are from Luke. He claims that you will greatly enjoy them."
"He's lost his mind."
"The possibility has occurred to me."
"I couldn't read all these in ten years, let alone the time that's left."
"Perhaps. But under the circumstances, he felt that there was no reason to be stingy. Actually, this is not the complete selection he offered. He attempted to include The Wild by Whitley Strieber, and several works by Chalker and Vance. Under the circumstances, I felt that they were in questionable taste."
"Figures." He thought for a moment. "Well, if the damn things are just gonna rot anyway, I guess they may as well rot here."
^} did not respond, hoping that Paul's curiosity would win out... and it did.
"So, what's Luke up to these days, anyway? Is he buried in that database of yours yet?"
"The work is proceeding on schedule. He still seems to be happy with the project. In his spare time, he has taken to writing; he is preparing a journal of his experiences. Once it is complete, I believe it is his intent to slip it into the database. His working title is 'On the Effects of Zoomorphic Transmogrification on Homo Sapiens Latrans'. The first twenty pages are written in a very scholarly fashion, with the intent of causing the reader to believe it to be a genuine research document. His intent is to gradually loosen the style over the course of the document, then to transition at some point into free verse; he believes that the final twenty pages will be in iambic pentameter."
Paul's jaw dropped slightly. He covered his mouth with one hand, and stared at the ground for some time, speechless. ^} thought he could understand this; it had been his reaction as well.
When Paul finally took his hand away, he was smiling, and shaking his head. "That is the most amazing damnfool thing I've ever heard of." Then, more seriously, "And how much time does he figure on taking to finish that? We have to stick to the schedule, don't we?"
"He believes that he can finish it well before the deadline for stage four. And, if not... well, he raises an interesting point. The regulations as published by the Agency only ban reading; writing is never specifically mentioned. So it is his position that, as long as he does not read the work after he writes it, he is complying with the regulations. He has offered to place each page in a box after he completes it. He still greatly wishes to visit you, you know."
"And his keeper is buying that?"
"Actually, I am now your brother's 'keeper', if you must use that term. He is a very interesting person; I felt we could mutually benefit."
Paul darkened, and did not respond. ^} was sure that he had said something wrong; but he was not sure what, so he pressed on.
"I am not authorized to interpret the guidelines that broadly on my own. So I submitted a request for a clarification to my supervisor. He insists that all such requests be prioritized; and I complied. The outcome of the question does not affect the security of the office, nor the orderly function of the program. Accordingly, it received the lowest priority. At the rate he is currently processing such requests, I do not expect to receive an answer for at least three years. And in the meantime, I see no reason to interfere."
"How damn generous of you."
"Mr. Foster, I have obviously said something that upsets you. Would you please tell me what it is?"
"You're the smart one; you tell me."
^} felt a glimmer of that same anger that had struck him so many months ago.
"Mr. Palmer, do you still believe that I enjoy what is happening here?"
"No. As a matter of fact, you're the nicest, most considerate murderer I've ever met."
"Then why do you continue to go so terribly far out of your way to make my life miserable whenever we meet?"
"Because we're at war. And you're on the wrong side. And I'm fighting it the only way I can."
^} thought about this. "I do not understand how your actions could possibly be construed as warfare."
"There was a time when I was a normal human being. I lived in a nice little house in suburbia, and I had a telephone, just like everybody else. And, at least once a day, the phone would ring, and I would drop everything and answer it like every normal human being, and it would be a telemarketer. You are familiar with the concept of telemarketing, I assume?"
"Telemarketing is an evil thing. It's a bunch of people spending billions of dollars a year, with the goal of interrupting you in your own home to sell you something you probably don't need for way too much money, and then selling your name to all the other telemarketers so they can call you even more and sell you even more crap. And you can't stop it, because any law that would stop them would screw a bunch of innocent people, and there's just too many people making too much money and pumping it into lobbyists. Are you with me so far?"
"I am not certain that all telemarketers can be considered that way. But I understand your view."
"Fine. So whenever one of 'em called, I would hem and haw and hmmm-I-don't-know, just to get them talking. And once they got really rolling, I would just put the phone down and walk away. I would let them waste just as much time as they wanted, talking to the desk. And if they were still there the next time I walked by the phone, I would pick it up and tell them just exactly what I thought of them, and hang up. And if they called me back to cuss me out, I'd do the same damn thing all over again. And why did I do that?"
"I am unsure. I would suspect that it was partially a desire to punish them for interfering with your privacy, and partially for amusement value."
"That's short-term thinking. I was doing it to destroy them utterly, the only way I could. I was making it just as miserable for the person at the other end of the phone as I possibly could. Because the shittier that person feels, the lousier he does his job. And eventually, if he gets a big enough ulcer from dealing with people like me day in and day out, he's going to quit. And the more people quit, the harder it is to replace them. Eventually, if enough people reach the point where they'd rather clean toilets than harass people on the phone all day, then the whole thing just collapses under its own weight. It's erosion. You can go out and watch one of those rocks in the creek for as long as you want, and you won't see it change; but eventually, it'll be sand on the beach."
^} pondered this. "The analogy is interesting, but it does not appear to apply. A rock has no capacity to heal; it offers no resistance other than its strength. But there are always new individuals entering the work force; wearing away the existing supply would not end telemarketing, as long as there are new workers available. Likewise, I suppose it is possible that you could demoralize me to the point where I could no longer function effectively; but that would not end the program. It would simply cause you and my other clients to suffer unnecessarily, until another nacelite was appointed to take my place."
"But if you've all heard horror stories about what a piece-of-shit job this is, it's going to make things that much harder. The Vietnamese had the right idea; if you can make things ugly enough for the other side, it doesn't matter how many people they have to throw at you. If you drag it out long enough, and send enough of 'em home in body bags, then the other side loses its will to fight."
"And you expect to destroy us in this way, in less than four years?"
"No, I don't. I wish I did, but I don't. Frankly, I don't think it matters much what happens to us now; even if you took all this back"--and here he gestured to his ears--"you've probably fucked us over so badly as a species that you may as well just keep going. We're dead already. But someday, you'll run into someone else like us. And if we make you as miserable as you should be now, then maybe you'll leave them well enough alone."
^} pondered that for a long time.
"I do not believe in the effectiveness of your approach," he said finally. "But I cannot fault you for attempting it, even though I wish that you would not think of the situation in those terms."
"Of course you wouldn't. If I didn't, then you could just pretend that you were helping me in my joyous transformation to my next life. You could almost pretend it wasn't genocide."
^} let that pass. "And that is why you are upset at your brother? Because he is not making us sufficiently miserable?"
Paul turned his back. "Absolutely. He can't bring himself not to take the path of least resistance. Not for once in his damn life."
"And when the day comes for his stage six, for yours... how do you think that will make me feel?"
"I don't give a damn how that makes you feel."
And with that, Paul walked away.
Later that night, ^} hovered in front of the television in the corner of the field office, and watched the screen.
He had found the video library to be a valuable source of insight on the humans and their culture. A few of the archivists had learned to read these videotapes simply by picking up the alignment of the magnetic particles on the tape. ^} preferred to use the VCR; it was slower, but it allowed him to experience the work in much the same way that a human would. And, once he had figured out how to connect the VCR to the television, it was much less complicated to learn.
He had selected a tape from the storage shelves, more or less at random. It was Saving Private Ryan. Filming had barely completed when the nacalites made their first announcement; much of the cast and crew had lost interest in the project, and it had been abandoned. But a few of the crew members had managed to piece the film together, and it had achieved a crude sort of circulation, copied from tape to tape to tape. It was ragged in many respects; the music and many of the sound effects had never been completed, and the editing was sometimes abrupt and disjointed. This copy appeared to have been several generations removed from the original, and the video quality was abysmal. Nevertheless, the film had power.
In many ways, it showed everything wrong with humanity--the sheer horror and brutality of war, and the ways that its pressures could distort human judgements. And yet, it showed something of humanity's strength as well. The notion of sending a squad of men into such a horrible battlefield, simply to save one man whose brothers had already been killed, was completely senseless when looked at rationally; yet it showed an odd sort of loyalty, of honor. At war, a family was expected to concentrate on the needs of the nation, even at the family's own expense; yet, if the sacrifices given by that family grew to be too great, the nation would in turn attempt to protect the family from further suffering, even at the expense of the war and the nation. It was such a very powerful notion; if only it were not so poisoned by the death and the suffering it led to...
^} quietly returned the tape to the shelf, contemplating this.
The next tape on the shelf was a slightly earlier work by the same director. There was time enough to watch it, and ^} found himself curious to see how this Stephen Spielberg's work would look in a truly finished form.
He slipped Schindler's List into the VCR, and settled down to watch.
|Part 4||HEA: Erosion Index|