Tell me when this is over, he said, turning over in bed. He had no frame of reference for this, no way to understand it. His life was over, his career was over.
He couldn’t close his eyes to it. He couldn’t avoid it, no matter how hard he tried.
The displays were actually in his retinas; that was the cruelest part. He had them implanted because they were seen as superior to the displays which contact lenses could provide, with better resolution due to their wiring into the ferromagnetic material lining his sphenoid bone. He’d had the procedure done, with realtime uplink to the Internet, which enabled all his access, which allowed him to voice dictate memos using eye movements and word commands. A look to his left and his right activated the voice processor, and then he could speak the command he wanted.
He had the ability to turn his realtime newsfeed off, to blot out the newsreaders and sleep peacefully, but the omnipresent nature of the information, the data, meant that he almost always had it on. He often fell asleep with it still playing, and while it was keyed to his eye movements so that the newsfeed would terminate when his eye movements or brainwaves indicated alpha waves or REM sleep, whichever indicators were meant to indicate that he was out of it and no longer with it, he found himself snapping awake whenever the newsfeed terminated, as though he had had a terrible dream of silence, for once.
He had then disengaged the sleep protocol on his internal software, and was now streaming all the time. The news bathed him in its oncoming stream of vapid nonsense, the various manufactured outrages, the nothingness of everything at once comforted him, and his dreams were taken over steadily by this onrush until he was the nothing that was everything.
He prided himself on his complete knowledge of the news. That’s why this latest series of developments, although he had anticipated it, still infuriated and surprised him. It confirmed in him his own worst fears about the voting citizens of the ZOT (Zembla and Overseeing Territories): they were complete and irredeemable idiots.
Nero Crenshaw was on his retscreen, again. He was talking about how Calormen were taking Zemblan jobs, were abusing Zemblan women, were committing crimes, and how we needed to stop the flow of people from Calorma to Zembla because it was devastating to Zembla’s economy. This particularly rankled him, because his role as Calorma-Zembla envoy focused on good will and good relationships between the two states.
He’d been recruited out of his consortium as a sharp young prosecutor who just happened to be an Calorman, and was seen as a rising star among the Reasons. There was even talk of him one day becoming Secretary General of the ZOT one day.
He had returned, and taken an apartment in Equus, the capital city. His father and stepmother were frequent visitors, a fact which brought back to him so many painful memories of his childhood that he had taken to avoiding them whenever possible.
He flipped through a few channels on his ret screen, trying to find information which would soothe him, bring him back to the state which he preferred, to bathe in a stream of oncoming information, finding pearls which he could store away for some future conversation, which would enable him to amuse or entertain his listener; he was a magpie for data, and he assembled over a long period of time. He prided himself not only on his recall, but his capacity for juxtaposition of various inputs, finding new ways of understanding situations, new perspectives, and potentially solutions to thorny problems.
He had been on overload for some time now, and it wasn’t getting any better. Worse, he had no one to talk with; his beautiful impressions had no audience, no one who appreciated his unique perspective.
Sure, he posted on ChanB. Everyone did. News clips, pictures of himself out with friends, cartoon vids from his childhood. He felt a momentary surge of happiness and recognition when his posts were oomphed, which faded as the oomphs faded, and he found himself as isolated as ever.
Ironically, through ChanB he could find absolutely anyone in the world, but he found that the friends of his youth, the ones he had left behind on Earth or in the academy, had no context of friendship, there was no taste in their online relationships. It was like seeing their pictures and watching their lives go on without him there exacerbated his own loneliness, drove home his abandonment and rootlessness, back on Calorma, where dreams go to die. And it was disheartening to have to go on social media to have only one more area to be ignored, to have a group of strangers disregard what he said.
It would have been one thing if he’d gone there for his own career advancement only; which, sure, that was part of it. But he left the prosecutor’s office with the idea, having been sold a dream of contributing, of having taken a leadership role for the Calormen, the stepchildren of history. he had wanted to change things for them.
Calormen had the highest rates of salvinol and tetrofol abuse anywhere in the solar system. He had only to walk down the streets of Equus to see them there, passed out, and the shame and anger welled up in him each time he came across another, bronked again, another sad story of the Calormen gone to waste.
He felt like democracy was the key to their redemption. If they were incorporated into the political process , if they were helped to start their own businesses, then they could see the benefits of this economic system, the Chontar dream. Sure, he sounded like a Heritage when he talked like that, but there was no need for false dichotomies- everyone needed to trade to eat, that was all there was to it.
Detractors would spew their left wing theories about why this could never work. They would say that the Calormen were an entirely self sufficient and self governing people before being “discovered” by the Zemblans. When Zembla colonized the territory, the Calromen were treated as equals, and efforts were made to learn their language and forge alliances with them. Then methane was discovered in the underground caverns, and suddenly there was a rush for everything the Calormen had – Zemblans tried everything they could, but there was no common currency until the Calormen taste for Salvinol was discovered, and thus was a proud race of people brought low to serve the needs of the colonizers.
Lately the government has been burning the pleasure centers out of the Calormen, as a last ditch effort to quell the force of addiction. The scene of a post burn Calorman was hard for him to see – the intensity, the passion just gone from their eyes, the shell has replaced the man.
Politics is just about yelling. It’s about bullying your way through every other person so that your voice is the loudest and most insistent and can’t be ignored. There’s no shortage of people to bemoan the death of civility in the modern era of ZOT elections, endless rehearsals, contests between who can sink lower.
And you can’t make them listen – you have to appeal to their fear, to their most base instincts which say “I could lose everything if I don’t take this seriously.” Then, whatever you’ve made them aware of is your fault, even though you didn’t create the problem, you’re the one trying earnestly to solve it; you’re the bad actor no matter what.
You get into politics to make a difference, and in the end you’re embittered like everyone else.
His sinuses started buzzing. He looked up and left, and started a call with his boss, the prime minister of the ZOT, Logana Leyde.
“I know you were raised on Calorma, but I actually have expectations about your performance while you’re working for me.”
He winced. She only brought up his race when she was angry, and he fought the urge to start shouting.
“Do you realize what you’ve done, taking part in that disastrous interview?”
He hung his head, wishing he could avoid this conversation. He recalled every word of the program, the awful impact of his honesty and naïveté.
“So why does everybody hate you? That’s what I want to know.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s who I am, maybe it’s what I represent.”
“What do you mean, what you represent?”
“I’m a Calorman, sure, but I’m successful. I’ve been to a good university, I was an aggressive prosecutor before I got into politics.
“I can’t say I was prepared for the wave of hatred I received when I got back, though. People have it out for me. The calormen assembly sees me as a judas because I come from the Leyde administration, and they hate Leyde as much as they hate Crenshaw.
It’s not about me, though. They would have done this to anyone in my shoes.”
“But there were representatives before, none of them have drawn anywhere near as many complaints and universal scorn like you have. Your handling of the issues important to Calormen has been rated thelowest in history. You don’t think your personality has something to do with it?”
“Is it me, or is it Nero Crenshaw? Every time he takes to ChanB, and makes some horrible, misinformed comment about how Calorma is a literal hell, where our children are failing in their schools, and the streets are on fire, trash is everywhere, drug addicts line every street, all the work we’ve done, everything we’ve fought for…. it just makes things worse.”
“Most of your constituents would rather you didn’t use the term “we” when referring to the work of ZOT. They don’t feel like they have any part of you or the government.”
“Look, I didn’t come on your program to be bullied and slandered.”
“These are the polls, Mr. Donnelly, we aren’t making any of this up.”
“I’m sure the polls you have are great polls, but I can’t be held responsible for the accumulated mass of public feelings.”
“Let’s talk about what happened with the Bocephus agreement.”
Edgar sighed. “I knew it would come to this.”
“You were tasked with negotiating with a partner of the administration, and that fell through.”
“You were forbidden to contact the Bocephus people.”
“In no uncertain terms.”
“Yet you went ahead and contacted them.”
“No one knew how to negotiate with them the way I did. I talked to that old woman for hours and hours, she told me about her pain, about how she was three hundred pounds, dropped down to 78, about how she’s never been understood or appreciated, but she’s done the best that she could. And I listened and talked and listened, and she was ready to sign the contract, but said she wanted to think about it overnight, and I come back and all agreements have broke down and I’m not allowed to talk with anyone anymore involved with it.
“She did this because she wanted more time to bargain, to see if she could get a better deal by dragging out the negotiations as long as possible.”
“And I might have gotten upset, and I might have said a few curse words to the wrong person when I got the run around as to why I wasn’t to see her.”
“Suddenly there’s a whisper campaign against me. I’m dangerously unstable. I sabotaged the Bocephus talks to try and better my own position with the party, selling out my native Calormen in an attempt to line my own pockets. And there’s no way I can trace any of these rumors, no way that I can undo what was said and what was perceived, even if what was said was by a cantankerous, poisonous shrew out to manipulate however she could. She was a master manipulator. She had the ZOT senate chaplain write fiery screeds to Logana herself. But I can’t speak about rumors. I can try and stand by my record and hope that my government will support me, but I just don’t know what will happen.”
The interviewer brought up a transcript which he could see, reverse, as it hung in the air.
“Granny Bocephus said that you said, ‘I’m better than all of you Calormen put together, and I can’t wait to escape this rotten shithole. I could have all of you wiped off the face of the planet with one message to ZOT.”
“Absolutely, I never said that. What am I, a comic book supervillain? Who even talks like that?”
“A quote from Granny, ‘we hate your envoy, and we wish everyone to know that he is being disciplined by Leyde and ZOT for what he’s done.”
“She’s using me, she’s trampling on my reputation to make her own.”
“She’s an old woman Mr. Donnelly.”
“No one should underestimate Granny Bocephus”
“So then you get called before the tribunal.”
“Tell me what happened then.”
“I was castigated for a lackluster performance. All my flaws were played for me on video screen, and uploaded to ChanB for the voters to witness my every misstep, my every stammer and wince. Any breaches of protocol, no matter how obscure, were played before me as well. In any situation of “he said, she said,” I was judged to be the one in the wrong. They kept telling me to be honest and tell the truth, but I was telling the truth, and I have no idea what they meant.”
“And then you decided to tell them how you felt. We’re going to play a clip of your ‘rant,’ which was live broadcast on ChanB as you spoke it.”
He remembered this speech well, as it was likely his last in politics. He had tried to hold his tongue for as long as he could, hoping to ride out the hearing, stay quiet, lie low for a few election cycles, and return after an opportunity presented itself. But he had been provoked when they brought up his family. His father, disabled from years of work in the methane refineries, had always been a sore point for him. When they asked him if he had sabotaged the Bocephus talks out of some misguided sense of family loyalty, he couldn’t hold his tongue. They told him to be honest, and now he would be, now he would tell them everything that was on his heart.
“I became the envoy to help my people. And I thought I was doing good here, I thought I was working for you and improving your lives, even if only in an incremental fashion. I thought that all of you on ZOT were my friends, that we were helping each other, and that if any of you had a problem with me, you’d tell me about it. If I’d done something to upset or offend you, I thought you would come to me.”
“I presented myself as a benign and agreeable person, someone who was reasonable and friendly and kind. And you’ve done everything in your power to fuck up my whole life.
The sting of the betrayal comes in waves. At first it was a shock, and I tried to just ride it out, to minimize my reaction, because in politics, to be offended is to show weakness. I wanted to show that I expected it, and put on a brave smile, and maintain my composure. I wanted to appear to be the reasonable one. I wanted to keep my position, and demonstrate that I’m not an angry person, that I’m not unstable or irrational. That I had no malice toward anyone, but it’s been so hard, because of all these knives in my back, they hurt so much, and make it hard to smile, and all I want to do is scream and scream ‘how could you do this to me! All I’ve been is good to you!'”
“If I’m an untrustworthy person, then why do you present a smile to my face and then go walk behind my back, saying that I’m be deceptive? Each of you, you’re the one who has a problem. Your jealousy makes you suffer. You want to make me suffer, and I’ll do my penance, I’ll spend my time in the outer darkness, until your vengeance is satisfied, until your sense of justice is fulfilled, and your sense of equity has balanced.”
“I’ll never forget this. You’ve trashed my reputation with all your shit, and I haven’t done anything to deserve it. Everything that’s been said about me has been lies, rumors, everything’s been twisted, and everyone wants to believe the worst that has been said about me. I can’t escape this bed of lies. I can’t thrive, or survive, it’s a cancer, it’s malignant, and it’s choking me.”
“And if I could say something to you, perhaps I wouldn’t. I reproach myself, thinking, ‘I should have known you would betray me, I should have known you were jealous and wanted nothing good for me. I should have known that all you wanted was for me to be brought down low, to be like you. To hurt me because you could never be like me.”
“The reporters say to me, ‘Edgar, why does everybody hate you, why does nobody trust you, why does everyone think that you’re out to get them, and why is everybody out to get you? Why does nobody like you?’ I didn’t know that everybody hated me. I always answer in that way, like a simpleton, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know why, but I’ve done my best to be nice and friendly.’ And the reporters say, ‘But why do they hate you, why are they trying to destroy you, why are they thinking of these evil things for you, it must be a fault in you, it must be something you have done.’ And they tell me I have to be humble, to be more humble. And I say, ‘I think I’ve been trying to be humble, I’ve been trying to listen, to shut up and do exactly what they say, but it’s never enough, they’re trying to destroy me, they just want to fuck me up and bury me.'”
“But clearly what you wish is that you could share in with my life. If you’re jealous, it’s because you want what I have. I would love to have shared it with you; I would love to have brought you in, and to have you become my inner circle; I would love for us to of been friends, and I would love for us to of been together and work together and have a lifelong career together. I must now cast you into the outer darkness, with the weeping, and the wailing, and the gnashing of teeth, and I’m sorry that it has to be this way but it was your decision, and I have to do these things to protect myself and to protect my family, and I’m so sorry that had to be this way but that is how it will be. And I’m sorry if this comes across as cold grateful and mean spirited but if you can take any consolation, take consolation in the fact that I learned it from you.”
“I’ve been made to suffer in an environment that it is cancer and that is creating animosity and tension in me, destroying everything that I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever believed in, it’s dirtying me, assailing me, trying to bring me down to its level. I won’t have my possibilities and ambitions by the anger and hate that’s within you. I have tried to show you that I’m better, I have tried to show you that I can rise above. I have tried to smile and demonstrate that things don’t bother me. You motherfuckers don’t know what I am capable of, and you don’t know who I am. You’ve never even met me before. You’ve never been interested in knowing me, you’ve only been interested in hurting me. What you’re about to find out is how much it stings, when you see how I rise, when you realize that you can’t conceive of someone with real talent, real accomplishments, when you realize you’ve never met anyone who’s really alive the way that I am.”
“As they have made abundantly clear, I am being punished not for my behavior, not for anything that you can prove, but instead for the perception of what I’ve done. I’m to suffer to put at ease people who have felt jealous and some obscure sense of wrong merely for the fact of my charisma and talent.”
“What’s the advice I’ve received? ‘Don’t talk, don’t be noticed, become a non-person to save your own skin. Be humble. Put shit on your face and wear dirty clothes.’ Fuck you. Right now you may have all the power and all the authority. But soon will come a time when you don’t have any hold on me.”
“You may resent me for my confidence, for my speaking ability, for my connections and charm and ease, misrepresenting them as shady or conniving or condescending, making me a product and reflection of your inadequacy.”
“I will tear down all that you have, and I’ll destroy everything you rest your confidence on. I’ll ally myself with powers that torment you, and force you through hoops you’ve never dreamed of. You’ll have to adjust, long since you’ve been past the point of being able to change. I’ll make a liability of everything that you’ve relied upon. All the things you’ve neglected and ignored, I will make essential, as you will rue the day you belittled and demeaned me. I will never be in the position of asking you for anything, and you will never be able to rely on me for support. You won’t know how hard you’ve fallen until you find your back broken.”
“You have called my credibility into question with this ridiculous inquisition, and viewed all of my actions with the presumption, that I’m guilty, casting everything that I’ve done in the light of some manner of deception and falsehood. I have had to continually justify myself and be on the defensive throughout this entire series of events, which has been incredibly stressful for my family and for myself. I have found this highly offensive and invasive to my privacy as well as offensive to my dignity.”
“When you talk about my family I hope the words catch in your throat. I hope you feel the guilt and the shame that your actions have prompted and that you understand how much you have cost me, how much you upset me, and how much you have destroyed the faith and the trust that I have in this institution; I still cannot understand how you would have this amount of malice and bitterness in your heart. I hope that this has brought you some measure of happiness and solace and consolation, for it has only brought me bitterness and it is only turned me against you and everyone in your organization.”
“No one is actually in control of this shitty world. Everyone and everything represents component parts of a shitty system which is designed to suck the life out of everyone, everyone is corrupt, everyone if forced to succumb to this filth. They force you to participate, they drag you down, you want to be good, and they make you bad. They take everything good about you, and make it horrible.”
He ran out of breath at this point, and the proceedings were concluded. It wasn’t necessary any longer to convict him on breach of protocol, because he had damned himself with his own tongue, with his candor and the force of his pronouncements and anger.
Logana didn’t even let him resign. She fired him, and used his termination as ground for the resumption of friendly relations with Granny Bocephus.
He stayed in bed for weeks; his father came to try and encourage him to eat, to go out, but he couldn’t. He was so angry, and hurt; he couldn’t move or think for everything that he felt, for how deeply they hurt him.
Three weeks after his termination, he received a letter, a bright white card with a stamp inscribed on it, bearing a symbol he couldn’t recognize. It said, “I can make you free.”
He turned it over; there was no return address, no contact information. His curiosity drew him out the door, and he walked down his street for the first time in weeks. At the corner store, he went in. The clerk there knew his father, and was too polite to mention his disgrace and political suicide. He showed the card to the clerk, who turned it over.
“This is from the florist whose shop is two blocks from here. He’s there now, if you’d like to see him.”
Edgar thanked the clerk, and bought a tea from him to patronize his shop. He walked to the florists shop, a location without a great deal of traffic or interest from customers.
“The first thing we have to do is get rid of your implants. Take you off all forms of electronic communication. You’re addicted to it, and it’s draining your will to live. You’re useless to us like this.”