by Kai Staats
Copyright © 1988
The meeting held nothing of interest for Chao. Words of wisdom flew over his head as a man spoke in the front of the meeting hall. His voice a tidal wave that blew the sands of deception, false dreams, and individuality from the crowded beach. His voice cleared the way for unity, for logic, and for truth.
Chao did not pay attention. His hair ruffled in the wake of the air conditioning vent but his heart was unmoved. He had heard the speech before, hundreds upon hundreds of times. The truth was obvious! The man continued to preach of war and of victory, of the past and of the future. It all made sense and it was powerful for those who wanted it to be.
Chao may have been moved by the phrases. He may have been tossed into a wild frenzy of cheers and laughter like those around him, but not that morning. Not that day. Chao watched Karaen throughout the entire ceremony. Karaen remained ignorant of those around her but her arms waved and her cheers could be heard among the rest. She was part of each word as though her reaction and the words of wisdom were one and the same.
The meeting hall cleared as quickly as it had filled. Everyone headed to their work sites with a face as cold as steel. They talked among each other, providing reaffirmation and courage, but if any emotion existed, it was hidden deep inside their animated shells.
Chao could not see this, however. He did not see anything but Karaen. Her walk was that of the masses. Her gate the same. She neither strode faster nor slower than the rest of them but along side and discussed the matters at hand.
As the crowd moved outward from the smallest Tower, the crowds grew less dense. They walked in dozens, then sixes, and finally pairs. Chao had to leave Karaen without a single word to her. Karaen crossed the street. Chao remained on the corner and watched.
Karaen knew the course. She marched to the beat of thousands of footfalls. Chao watched as she metabolized her medication, one step at a time. It would be several days before she would be herself again.
“Chao, you are behind schedule. Please hurry,” the voice beckoned from Chao’s wristband.
Chao replied, out of habit alone, “Of course, thank you for the reminder.”
* * *
“Urgent situation, Elder, it is priority level one.”
The second man sat upright, placed his hands on his knees and leaned forward, toward the screen. “Proceed.” The alphanumeric statistics were replaced by flat black eyes that stared into the room. A bearded man spoke through dry cracked lips from the distant side of the visual display and stated the important information. The second man, seated in front of the screen, listened and nodded several times. His distress increased with each nod. He sat back again and slammed his fist onto the desk, nearly crushing the keyboard a finger’s width to the side. “Why wasn’t I informed of this earlier?”
“One of the computer relay stations on the Tower was down for a day and I didn’t get the report until just now.”
“Monitor, bring up this guy’s file.” Before he muttered ‘file’ the computer screen fell to a dull gray with a small window in the bottom right hand corner. The bearded man remained in the window.
A pause followed by a flicker of the screen and a midtone, internal bell and then the personal data file. A shallow smile grew on the man’s face. His chance to inflict punishment grew near.
A long list of identification numbers, dates, personal historical data, and quality and efficiency ratings filled the screen. With the last line of information the man at the keyboard paused, glanced at the other framed by the electronic window then stated, “Continue.” The screen resumed the exhibit of the file.
Media in current use: electrostatic pallet/image transfer.
Expected expansion to other media: none.
Display of special talents: none.
Medical status: currently medicated with Stepper 9.
“My god! Stepper 9? Is this guy a living sponge? How long has he been on that stuff?”
“For nearly four years,” replied the Monitor and the man in the window simultaneously.
“Anyone else on this god forbidden planet would be able to fuck’n fly with that much Stepper in him.”
The first spoke to the Monitor, “Let me see the rest of his file.”
“Yes, of course.” More data poured onto the screen.
“Well, that’s a little more like it, but this guy is a complete moron.” The man paused, “Bring up a second window with a visual.” He glanced to the bottom left at the image and then asked the Monitor, “What do you make of it?”
“I do not understand the question.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, what is your analysis of this–” and with a shift of his voice, as though he were faced with the disease of saying his name, “Chao?”
“The records are quite adequate in presenting his contribution to the Nation. He is very inefficient, has a low standard of quality, is addicted to his medication, and spends a great quantity of time with his female friend. Termination is recommended.”
“Who recommends termination?” the Monitor asked.
“No, who is his female friend?”
“Karaen of the Computer Maintenance Guild.”
“I was not aware of this complication.” He paused to consider the implication of the relationship between Chao and Karaen. “Tell me a little about Karaen.”
The man in the window yawned and spoke without reverence, “Oh, give it up, would ya? I don’t see the need for all this research. I’m go’n to grab a bite to eat.” And with that he slid from view and the window disappeared.
The Monitor continue, “Would you like to see her file?”
Slightly disturbed by the impatience of the now absent man, the first replied, “No, I get tired of reading this damned screen, just narrate it.”
“Yes, of course.” A pause of only a brief moment allowed the man at the terminal to become more comfortable, his fingers interwoven behind his head, his eyes closed and jaw clamped tight.
“Karaen of the CMG has a particularly high quality rating and an average output efficiency. She has excelled in her original field of repair and has been recently introduced to the field of programming. She has increased her efficiency with the introduction of a second skill, as is quite common among the guild members.” The monitor waited.
“What is her medical condition?”
“Karaen appears to have intense and sometimes painful reaction to her medication.”
“What medication is that?”
“A stabilizer? What did she do?”
“She asks numerous questions concerning areas of her field that do not concern her, and for–”
“To what degree does she question?”
“A very high degree. If she were not medicated, she would be a terrible burden on the whole of those persons in immediate contact with her.”
“So how do Chao and Karaen interact?”
“Karaen, when not medicated, spends all of her free time with Chao. They share the same day off in their work schedule. Karaen’s quality and efficiency ratings drop to half of their norm when she is not medicated.”
“What do they do when they are together?”
“They read books,” the Monitor stated as matter of fact.
“They read books.”
“Yes, I heard you, but why?”
“I do not have that information. I can of course inform Karaen’s Monitor to ask her that question.”
“Don’t bother. What did you mean, ‘when not medicated?’”
“The medication that Karaen receives forces her mind to concentrate only on her work with the CMG. However, there is a problem associated with Karaen in that the inquisitive suppressant is not as effective with her as it is on others.”
“Why don’t you increase the level to 8 or something?”
“She already suffers from pain at the prescribed level.”
“So what is the solution?”
“I have not sought one.” The Monitor continued in its soothing monotone voice, “Do you wish for me to investigate the matter?”
“No, no.” The man leaned back in his chair and yawned. The small window in the corner of the screen flickered to life. “So, what do we do with these two?”
The bearded man returned as a full screen format. He chewed the remaining morsels in his mouth and then licked his blood stained fingertips of the meat. With a mouth not quite clear of the food, he replied, “Doesn’t matter to me. Maybe … pull this Karaen out for a couple days. Knock her out cold. Have some fun with her, hell, she won’t know the difference. No one ever does. Problems. Nothing but problems, these types.”
Both men grinned, the one allowing a piece of partially chewed food to fall from his mouth to his lap. “Then we’ll figure out what to do with her medication. Just separate the two. Keep it clean. We have better things to do with our time.”
“And of this Chao?”
The feeding man fondled the idea of Karaen bent to his will and raised an eyebrow at the thought of how much fun a misfit like Chao could be, his medicated toy. With fresh food in his stomach, his creativity increased. “Keep track of him, close, and if he doesn’t improve–”, his voice trailed, he glanced at the food to his right and then turned his stare back to the screen, “–then we will have to remove him.”
* * *
“Monitor, I wish to be with Karaen. I am going to walk to her cubicle and visit with her. I will be back shortly.” Chao slowly rose from his chair and turned to the exit. It did not open. “Monitor, I would appreciate your allowing the door to open.” The Monitor did not respond. Chao shifted his weight to his other foot and folded his arms across his chest. The Monitor still did not respond and the door remained closed.
Chao, impatient and frustrated with the Monitor’s refusal, spun on his heel and turned to face the computer terminal. The Monitor, in its hidden world of electronic communication received an order. The door slid open. The wane of its electric motor and low friction rollers were a relief to Chao.
He spun back around, paused, and then shot through the door like an animal set free from a cage. Once off of his cubicle step and walkway, Chao slowed his sprint to a gait. His heart beat as he imagined Karaen’s surprise at his arrival.
He hurried down the block and towards the center of town. Chao looked momentarily behind him to take notice of the deep red sun low on the dusty horizon. He would have to be back shortly after sunset to avoid the night patrol of the Guard.
Ten minutes and a thousand heart beats from his cubicle, Chao approached Karaen’s. As he slowed again to a walking pace, Chao noticed a distant hover craft speeding across the nearest intersection of roads. Chao thought it was truly odd that a hover craft would be transporting anything at that time in the evening. He did not pause as his attention immediately shifted back to the entrance to Karaen’s cubicle.
Chao pulled short of the front door, his legs braced rigidly beneath him. What he saw was unusual and disturbed him. Karaen’s front door was ajar, perhaps the width of a hand. He leaned closer to the doorway and peered through the slit. The room was dark and without movement. “Karaen?” His voice cracked with nervous tension. “Karaen? Your door is open a bit. Were you aware of it being so? Karaen? It’s Chao, may I come in?”
No answer. Not even an invitation from Karaen’s Monitor. Chao stepped closer, pressed himself against the door and strained to see something within.
From his wrist came the inquiry of a soft, male voice, “Chao, what do you plan to do?”
“I had considered entering. Perhaps Karaen is injured or ill.”
“No Chao. That is not your place. If Karaen was immobilized her Monitor would have described her condition. Please return to your cubicle, Chao.”
“No.” Chao could hardly believe his own stern response.
“Chao, come back to your cubicle, immediately.”
“No.” Without hesitation, he reached through the gap and pressed the palm of both his hands against the thickness of the edge of the door. With surprising ease, the door slid completely into the wall. The dim light from the setting sun gave the room a warm, red glow.
“Chao, return at once. This action is definitely detrimental to your personal records.”
Chao did not hear the tiny voice from the electronic relay on his wrist. Instead, Chao stepped into the cubicle and called aloud, “Karaen! Karaen, are you alright?”
A small eddy of air whipped a swirl of dust in the street. The movement caused a draft within Karaen’s cubicle and Chao had the momentary satisfaction of her familiar scent.
Chao required several minutes before the realization of Karaen’s absence struck home. He bolted from the main room to Karaen’s shower room. Again the door was open. Chao easily passed and stepped within. The totally dark room shed little light on his quest.
“Lights on.” Chao’s command produced nothing. Again, “Lights on.” Nothing. The Monitor was either inactive or ignoring him.
“Chao, I believe you have seen enough. It is time for you to return to your cubicle.” Chao’s Monitor continued to pester him from its distant vantage; it spoke through the device attached to his wrist.
Chao did not respond.
“Chao, you will return now or I will be forced to contact the Citizen Guard and they will deal with your insolence in their own fashion.”
Chao’s back twitched with the memory of the guards on the monorail. The impact of thirty-five thousand volts was not desirable. Chao realized his predicament. Karaen was nowhere to be found. With no choice but to leave, Chao hurried from the shower room to her Monitor’s lair. As he did, he looked to his left and noticed three books upon the shelf. He recalled many hours spent reading those three books with Karaen. Chao sped to the shelf that held the books. Beneath the books were three drawers. The first two were empty but the third contained a single sheet of paper. The light was too dim to describe the paper but Chao slipped it between the pages of the largest book, took all three, and then exited Karaen’s cubicle.
The door did not slide shut behind him. The light mounted in the ceiling of the porch did not illuminate with his presence and the small gusts of wind were still. But Chao’s brief passage to his cubicle was lit by the stars and the reflected light of the three moons, one natural, two man-made overhead.
The caress of the cool night air did not calm Chao’s internal inferno. The only person he had ever cared for had been taken. Without explanation Chao was left helpless and alone in a world he no longer felt a part of. Chao wanted to run. He wanted to flee but had no where to run to. There was nowhere to be alone. The Monitor was always with him. From the day he was created Chao had always suffered the indignity of someone watching him, waiting for his mistakes.
He trotted as best he could with the imbalance of the books in the crook of his arm. Chao rounded the first of nine corners. He counted beneath his breath, pounded out the number of steps he made between each turn in the sidewalk. Chao walked the last few hundred meters. He did not know what he would do when he reentered his cubicle. Should I sit and wait for Karaen to contact me again? Should I try to contact her? Who has taken her?
At the front step Chao stopped and turned, his back against the stone backdrop of the doorway. He looked up to the stars in the sky and moisture collected in the corners of his eyes. That salty mixture grew in volume until it broke free and rolled down the sides of his cheeks. Chao raised his hand to sweep the tears from his skin and gain a second look, but the Monitor’s articulation stopped him short.
With his wrist near to his ear, the male voice no longer echoed the usual soft, passive tone. Instead, a harsh, rasp-like voice uttered his name. Chao immediately lowered his hand, allowed the tears to remain on his face.
“Chao, do not waste any more of your valuable time expressing useless emotion over Karaen. Enter your cubicle immediately and your evening meal will be prepared.”
“Where did they take her?”
“Chao, I refuse to placate to your infantile disillusions of affection for a woman who does not even wish to speak with you. This relationship has caused you to disobey my commands and steal three books from her cubicle. You will be reprimanded.”
Chao breathed deeply, held his growing anger and repressed fears within his frail body cage. He grew weary of holding back. He grew exhausted with his perpetual self control. Chao wanted answers. The more he considered the deception that kept Karaen from him, the more he realized the deception that was present in the rest of his life.
Again, but with new strength, “Where did they take her?”
The Monitor responded with the return of the usual soft, caring voice with which Chao was accustomed, “Chao, you do not need to know the location of Karaen. Her recent actions have led to the need for her temporary removal from society. It is simply a matter of time before she is returned. I know you understand the delicate balance that is required to maintain an efficient, content Nation.”
“What did she do?”
“You have asked too many questions already, Chao. Come inside and enjoy your evening meal while it is yet warm.”
“No! What could she have possibly done to be abducted by the Citizen Guard? What did I do to receive the treatment that was given to me on the monorail?”
The Monitor’s voice became smooth and soothing. It came not from the wrist band but from within Chao’s cubicle, begging him to enter. “Chao, every citizen of this Nation is at war. There are rival nations plotting to destroy us at every second. They are heathens and you are fortunate to live in the midst of such great technology and promise for the future.”
Chao knew what was to come. He had heard it all before. Like the Man of Wisdom with his powerful speeches, the Monitor repeated the words on cue, “You owe your life to the Elders that protect and care for you. It is they that should be given praise for everything you have. Your relationship with Karaen is not worthy of such despair.”
There was nothing Chao could do. There was simply nothing. Chao took another step toward the door and the porch light lit the last three steps before him. Two more steps and the door slid open. The warmth of the cubicle was usually comforting, but to Chao it was suffocating. He entered and placed the books on the shelf next to his own. The food the Monitor prepared was not satisfying. Instead, it was just food. Just something to place in his mouth, chew and swallow.
In the days that followed, Chao mindlessly completed his tasks and paintings. The Congregation of Affairs brought no emotion to his heart. Instead, he shut off all exterior noise, all voices, all movements. He thought only of Karaen and where she might be at each moment. He looked in every crowd; he walked passed her cubicle each day. The closed door would not open when he applied pressure as he had before. There appeared to be no one living there. Chao went to bed early but could not sleep. Twice more he slept on the floor and dreamt of wild adventures on a mountain, adventures that he and Karaen shared only in dreams. Chao looked forward to sleep.
The Monitor continued to fester beneath his skin, a parasite eating at him from the inside. Chao wanted to scratch and rip at his wrist to rid himself of the continual presence of the Monitor’s soft voice that mimicked him with every wrong action he committed.
The wrist unit was indestructible. Its hardened alloy case resisted moisture, scratches, impact, and heat. It was designed to be a mechanical part of Chao for the entirety of his life. He became more willing to die rather than live with the Monitor riding him like a leach.
A week passed and Chao’s motivation to awake in the morning, to perform his tasks waned. The Monitor noted the decline in his efficiency. The Monitor never allowed Chao to forget that he needed to increase his productivity and place more emphasis on his work. It was of course his duty to the Nation. Chao, however, simply did not care.
* * *
“You mean that same guy we had trouble with last week?”
The dark face in the Monitor wore a gray beard. He spoke with a gruff, disgusted voice, “Yeah, a real menace. We have to do something about him before he causes any damage to himself or someone else. For as much trouble as he is to us, he’s worth quite a bit on the market.”
“What exactly did he do this time?” The man seated in front of the Monitor reclined in his chair and folded his arms across his chest.
“According to the memo, it looks like he forced his way into that woman’s cubicle–”
The first man recalled from a similar conversation, “You mean Karaen.”
“Karaen, that’s the one. We have her in confinement. She’s all drugged up. Damn! She’s a tough bitch.” He reached to his cheek and winced with the pain of the scratches. “Anyway, he got in her cube just minutes after the Guard got her. According to his Monitor’s report, he searched every corner of the room. He disregarded every warning his Monitor gave him. And get this– just before leaving he grabbed three books and a drawing of some sort from her cubicle.”
“Have you sent someone to his cube to retrieve them?”
“Nah, it ain’t worth it. The way I figure, the rest of the council will want to be rid of him as bad as I do. His time is coming.”
The man in front of the Monitor, a little less bold than the bearded man on the screen, leaned closer with a look of concern on his light skinned face. “It scares me a little to think that guys like this and that woman Karaen can get out of hand. If everyone did all at once, we wouldn’t have enough Guard to keep ‘em under control. I’ve been pushing for more man power all along.”
The bearded man slid from the image. He returned seconds later with a piece of meat held in his fingers, his lips working hard to contain the large sum already within his mouth. He leaned back in his chair and shrugged his shoulders. A trickle of juice slipped from his lips and he quickly licked them clean.
The first, obviously more concerned over the issue, asked, “Have his actions affected anyone else?”
“No, he’s a real loner, except for Karaen.”
He nodded in conclusion, “Good. That makes it all the more simple.”
* * *
Chao sat down on the floor and allowed his head to fall forward into his hands, his elbows braced on his folded legs. The blanket beneath him did not adequately insulate him from the chill of the concrete floor but it was more comfortable than without.
Chao did not answer.
“Chao, can you hear me?”
“Why did you not answer me earlier?”
With his head still in his hands and with a muffled, barely audible voice, “I was ignoring you.”
“Why were you ignoring me, Chao?”
Chao no longer kept his disrespect from the Monitor. “If you were me, you would ignore you too.”
“I do not understand, Chao. Please explain.”
Chao did not answer immediately, but instead sighed, “I am going to sleep now.”
It would be his third night in a row that he slept on the floor. Each time to the great distress of the Monitor. Chao simply did not obey. He slowly lowered himself onto his back and pulled the blanket over his unclothed body. Chao longed for the nights. Chao was mindless and without life by day, forever controlled by the Monitor. But at night, then Chao could dream what he wanted. Feel what he wanted. He could be with Karaen and the Monitor could do nothing about it.
“Chao, I wish for you to sleep on the air mattress.”
“I know.” He rolled onto his side and closed his eyes.
The silence that followed was almost unnatural, at least according to the game the Monitor and Chao usually played. “Chao.” The soft male voice was almost hideous. It echoed as it bounced from concrete wall to cold stone wall. The Monitor was everywhere at once. Its simple, monotone voice filled the room like a poisonous gas. “Chao.”
No answer. Chao had already drifted into the safety of his mind. And the presence of the Monitor retreated.
He awoke many times, though, with very little rest between periods of sleep. Once, Chao woke and found the floor warm to the touch. His body was covered with sweat. He removed his blanket and found the exposure to the air more comfortable. He fell back to sleep.
An hour later, he awoke again. That time the floor was cold. Not the usual, natural chill of stone, but bitter and dangerous to the skin. It pulled at his cheek and Chao jumped to his feet. He gathered his blanket about him and climbed back up to the air mattress. But once on the mattress, every movement, every motion created a rush of air.
In Chao’s mind each rush was the laughter of the Monitor. Each time he was forced from his sleep, the Monitor won further ground in their battle.
Chao knew that each hour he could not sleep took from him the strength he needed for the next day. With each minute of sleep he lost Chao became more frustrated and angry. With each second he was awake, the more he hated the Monitor.
Chao lay on his back. The grasp of his groggy slumber was difficult to escape. He yawned.
Chao stretched his arms to their full extent and sighed. Having returned his arms to a relaxed position on his chest, he felt a light touch to the skin on the underside of his arm. His eyes shot open to an unexpected darkness– something metallic covered his eyes. He struggled to get up but found himself restrained by cold metal bands. His legs were restricted in their own confines; his neck also held to the floor made breathing nearly impossible. A series of tiny, sharp metal points bore into his scalp and the pain grew with each pulse of his heart.
“Wha- What are you doing to me?”
“Chao. You are inefficient.”
“Damn you! Damn you– you bastard!” Panic stricken and blind, Chao cried, “What are you doing?”
The pressure of a heavy metal plate was removed from his forehead and his eyes were opened to the horror. Chao cried aloud at the horror of what he saw. He fought the restraints but to no avail. The body he was a part of was no longer his, the flesh no longer human. Instead, his blood flowed in plastic tubes interwoven with a mass of electrical wires, some of which terminated deep within the exposed muscles. His abdomen was sliced from the bottom of his ribs to the top of his groin. The intestines were removed from their respective sockets and replaced with flexible, metal and plastic tubes.
Chao struggled. With each motion of his legs the metal bands cut deeper into the muscle that pressed against them. The pain forced his body ridged, recoiled through his back and neck. His head pounded with too much blood.
He could not move his head but his eyes darted over the length of his twisted body and blinked violently against the flare of the intense, overhead lamps.
Out of the flood of light, cold, articulated hands reached and bound his wrists.
“Karaen,” the monitor whispered again.
His fingers were freed of their nails– ripped from the tips. Moist blood covered the tissue that remained. Chao wanted to die, but it was no longer his choice. He could only cry out and then lose consciousness due to the pain of his struggle.
Each time he was brought back to his horror by the robotic arm that played with his useless limbs, the blood stained hands forced against his temples and forehead with the inhuman strength of pneumatic actuators. With each motion, automated valve assemblies released a rush of air into cylinders. The cylinders extended and Chao’s dismembered hands slapped his face. The blood matted his hair and stained his skin. Pools of warm liquid filled his eyes and blinded him to the next attack.
And then it came, from within Chao as much as from afar. He could see the world again and it was made only of shades of gray. Chao was a part of the Monitor and they spoke together. The voice was a hiss, an evil rasp, “Karaen is next.”
Chao awoke. His temples pounded with internal blood. The sound of his heart beat against his ears. Chao rolled from his back to his side and lay still. He held his hands together and he thought of Karaen. “Karaen!” he cried silently, “I won’t let them!”
Chao sat up on his mattress. The rage that burned within him was building, rising in him with the bitterness and burn of bile. As a stomach displeased with its contents, Chao could no longer hold down the pressure. The Monitor had beaten him for the last time. Through clenched teeth and tightly drawn lips Chao hissed, “No more.”
He sprang from the height of the loft and landed on the cold, concrete floor. His arms and legs touched the ground nearly at the same time, his back arched, eyes piercing the darkness. Chao had taken far too much. He could wait no more. With Karaen as his fire, his burning strength, Chao rose from his crouched poise and bolted towards the Monitor’s lair.
“Chao. What are you doing?”
This time he answered–with the flight of the chair through the Monitor’s screen. Glass shards flew in every direction as electric flares routed themselves between shattered pieces of circuitry. “Chao, your actions will be most detrimental to your personal recor–”
Chao`s eyes were midnight flares. His hands were weapons against the keyboard as he pounded on the case, cracked it into hundreds of minute, unrecognizable pieces. He did not pause. He did not slow his movement for a second. His actions were well executed plans of war. He swept up the processor in one swift motion and hurled it against the closest wall in another. Its innards were exposed in a flash of blue light. The multitude of electronic explosions resounded in unity.
With the strength of a madman Chao toppled the shelves which once housed the Monitor. He breathed deeply and stepped back from the massive destruction. His naked body stood strong and proud. It was the product of years of tolerance. It was the outcome of a lifetime of ridicule and persecution. Chao had justified himself and finally given purpose to his life.
With outstretched arms raised to the ceiling and legs braced amid the rubble, Chao was shaking for the adrenaline and pain, for the anger he had finally released.
Chao looked around. The damage was incredible. Very few of the pieces were even recognizable as important innards of the Monitor. Inside Chao a fire continued to burn. His anger had been expressed but his need to see Karaen burned as intensely as ever. It was only a matter of time before the Citizen Guard would arrive and marvel at the disaster he had designed.
Chao was proud, a he drew a smile. Chao spun on his heel, laughing, as he bounded through the rubble. And then it occurred to him, Why wait? Why wait for the Guard to come for me? Why not find them and make their job a little easier? He dressed himself in his gray jumpsuit and stuffed the pockets with the books he acquired at Karaen’s apartment. He made a path through the debris to the door, but there was not the usual response and the door remained closed.
Chao paused, turned to face the battered Monitor and then again faced the door. He pressed his fingers against the cold metal. The tension was difficult; the metal was smooth and offered little to hold. He shifted his footing and leaned a little harder. The door budged, the tension against the motors and gears produced a crackling sound, and a beam of sunlight cut through the suspended dust. Chao could not hold the door for long. He reached behind himself and with his foot retrieved the leg of a chair. With his toe he dragged it to the door and wedged it in place. The chair leg held its position and allowed Chao to reapply his weight. An eccentric cam was overcome and the door slide into it the wall.
The morning sun was warm and reviving. Chao could not recall enjoying the rays as much as he did then. At the front step he stopped, stretched his arms and then continued down the walk. At the first intersection Chao looked back and smiled again at the open door, the source of this strength lay inside.
Why haven’t the Citizen Guard come yet? No matter, Chao thought, It is a good, warm day for a walk. Chao felt powerful, strong, and healthy. He lacked the speed of the medication, but felt free without its control.
In the distance rose the twelve Towers. Their peaks cut at the dust clouds as they tried to ride over them. Soon he would be at their base. He would cry out to the Elders, “Here I am! Take me you bastards! I am the one who destroyed your precious Monitor. I did it!”
Again Chao smiled. It would be a wonderful feeling to see the look on their faces when they entered his living quarters. A half an hour passed and he was nearly there. It would only be a while longer before his arrival would be announced. Would they send out a single police unit for me or will I be considered dangerous, a public enemy? Perhaps the entire Citizen Guard will be required to catch me. Should I run? Should I make a game of it or just stand still and laugh like a madman.
No longer a painter, no longer an artisan. Now, I am a madman. Do they have a category and special training for that? Chao smiled.
His entire life he had been a painter. Just a painter. He painted facsimiles of scenery again and again without apparent reason. Chao did not even know why he painted. He was told that was his special talent, chosen by the wise Elders.
It was well known how the Elders chose the talents of the individuals. They simply slept. And in their dreams they would find their answers. It did not matter how great or how small the decision, each was made in the same manner. It was a dream that brought the twelve of them together, and it was dreams that continued to give them power. They were the answer to everything, the reason for Chao’s existence.
Chao had been told that sequence of explanations hundreds of times. The Man of Wisdom had pounded it into his brain with the strength of his amplifiers and the acid of his tears. It was the only truth Chao knew. It was the only life he had lived. And then it had come to a rapid and abrupt end. Chao had broken under the pressure. The Elders no longer mattered. The voice of the Monitor had driven him to madness and Chao enjoyed every second of his release. He had to see Karaen again. He loved her.
The smallest Tower loomed over Chao. A bench supported his weight and Chao relaxed. Without the medication, Chao felt burdened by the weight of his body, his energy low. His eyes wandered from side to side. He looked, and he waited. It would only be a few minutes now, he told himself, they will come for me.
Chao looked to his wrist. The remote extension of the Monitor was quiet. It continued to display the date and time, but the voice was dead. They will come.
Chao pulled from his pockets the three books. Within the folds of one of the pages was the single sheet of paper that he had taken from Karaen’s cubicle The light of the moons illuminated the hand-drawn dragon that filled the sheet; a creature of Karaen’s imagination, brought to life by Chao. She had painted it while he read from the books. Chao could feel the weight of her warm body pressed against his while she made tiny movements with his brushes, selecting, mixing, and then applying color. He had taught her to paint. She had taught him to love.
As the evening turned to night and the Guard did not come, Chao’s anger spoiled and turned to sorrow. He wondered what he should do next. He knew nothing of the world beyond this. He did not know where to run.
In the tower above, an Elder watched from his safe distance, waiting, patiently, until night did come.
His mind and body were tired. He was physically free, but he realized, yet trapped by his inability to run. Not for lack of ability, but lack of even knowing where to run to. Only in his dreams had he escaped, and to his dreams he would return.
He dreamed of Karaen, of a life together that felt so real, yet never survived beyond his dreams.
* * *
In the years that followed, Karaen and Chao never spoke of their time apart. Karaen no longer held Chao as she had before, seldom wanting to be held at all. Chao sometimes made mention of the mountains in the distance, but they knew they would never enjoy the snow capped peaks. The three books and Karaen’s painting were not to be found when Chao was returned to his cubicle and the creature of their imagination no longer flew through their dreams.