Big Echo

Critical SF

What To Observe For

by Matt Rowan

Sixteenth session was the one that had taken. It was the one that finally got the bigger part of public opinion on board. This was because of the wormy Dr. Gerald W. Frompt, who made his first appearance before the crowds. He stood from his lectern, launching scolding words deep down and forth from the trill of his vocal chords, and his face scolded via his adjacent interactive video board, good for enhanced visual representation of the visceral scolding he was delivering.

And he scolded, to great and persuasive effect, that society was in need of careful watch. People listened and they felt exactly as ashamed of themselves as was intended by Frompt, which was very ashamed, indeed.

Dr. Frompt had explained, at the outset of the scolding, saying the following -- more or less:

“Too many people still cannot be trusted to do what is right in every situation. The reasons for this are many: It is too hard. And opaque. And excruciating. And boring.”

That was the problem with what was right, but it didn’t change the categorical imperative that people still needed to do what was right.

They came out to give testimonials, the people who had gotten away with “it” but would not have been inclined to attempt the act if they had been watched by someone else, if all the while they had every reason to believe someone out there was judging them for their sins. And not just anyone, another human being. Possibly a wiser human being, a superior human being, a better and more decent human being. But more than anything, it was the mere fact of their being watched by another human being with whom they knew an exchange of words was possible.

People with generic names like Derek, Sofia and Gregory described things they had done or failed to do while no one was watching and how they wished, almost as though their actions in themselves were a cry for help, that someone had been, to remind them what they were doing was potentially wrong. This would have been especially helpful in those instances of murky gray, when it was hard to know for certain what precisely the most ethical course of action might be. Tell me what I am to do and I’ll do it, they all seemed to wish without wishing it aloud.

They spoke like robots, saying things like, “Made the decision not intervene in a situation that might have been street harassment or might have been hangout and joking among friends. Not sure now if I should regret lack of intervention. No punches or physicality occurred while I was paying attention to situation. Paid attention to situation for no more than three-to-ten seconds. Is that bad?”

Or,

“Question of, is it my responsibility to see to it that person who found money on ground make every attempt to return it to rightful owner / proper authorities instead of pocketing it? Did not do this when it happened and now not sure why did not and concerned should have. Also, it was actually me, personally, who found money and did not make effort to return. I am truly bad.” 

Or,

“If someone uses the word ‘kill’ and you don’t report it and no one is killed, is that still an offense? Because still feel bad about it in a big way even though no one I am aware of died. Though someone I’m unaware of might have died. I was mistaken, wasn’t I? It was a bad mistake.”

And so on.

“It is important that when observations are made that they are made with the kind of rigor our society deserves, in order to operate with the same kind of systematic rigor it was once able to operate with. We have a model then for reportage, exactly as it ought to be,” Dr. Frompt said, after the last testimonial was given. “An earnest and serious grading process will be handed down, to reward those who’ve completed their task effectively and to punish those who have not, punish them with the best and most effective punishment known to human society: shame with a dash of fear.”

Not more than a Tuesday in the Round later and Dr. Frompt had been murdered, or so it had seemed to everyone on the outside. Things seemed so easy to seem these days. But the word was that Frompt had been taken out by some form of violence by the very people who wanted him dead, of course. And since no one knew who those people were, there was public outcry, and many families were roused from their homes. To find the actual party or parties responsible.

And their family was right there with the others, on the run, all among them wondering if they could run, if running was safe to attempt. But Jayshua Lancaster, whose name was absurd but did not lead anyone to be skeptical of his motives, declared that it was safe and even if it wasn’t, they needed to try to run anyway, or else they might die.

Hortine Talley was the man who had led the other families into thinking they would be called upon to pay for Frompt’s murder, of whom Lancaster’s family was one. People admired Hortine Talley and Jayshua trusted their admiration. So his family, too, would follow Talley, whatever course he suggested as solution to their troubles.

There were a lot of people who thought it was pointless to run because everyone could already see them, anywhere they would go. That’s the way this world worked, everyone was constantly watching, naturally. And since Dr. Frompt had effectively organized their eyes in specific directions there was no stopping those eyes from seeing anything they wanted seen.

In fact, people were noticing all sorts of important data to be recorded, such as:

“Intoxicated subject attempting to purchase airline tickets makes non-specific threats.”

And:

“Suspicious individual sends suspicious email.”

And:

“Person of interest takes interest in things that no one has a good reason to take an interest in.”

And these were enough to give you a sense of how people watched and recorded their observations, thus leading people to think there was no point in running, because soon enough, they’d all be seen. Capture would follow after.

So if you were thinking there was someone out there deserving of your trust, it was better to think again. The unfortunate reality was most people were perfectly content to write and file their Citizen Identifications in Writ, Action Reports (CIWAPs).

A lot of people found them fun, in the end, even though originally no one had wanted to write them, and then no one felt confident about their writing them, like they weren’t using the right words when they wrote them, and then gradually, very slowly, they found that they had never wanted anything more in all their lives than to write these documents, or at least, they were happy to make this a regular part of their lives, and take a great amount of pleasure from the act.

And it relieved stress, because energy wasted thinking about yourself could be put somewhere else, upon somewhere else that wasn’t you to think about. Their brows felt less strained, their brains less squeezed, their heads less sweaty, less weary, that kind of sweat that slowly drenches the base of your hairline, rendering it wet and slick in a way that is visible to all and when you touch is slimy and gross and wets your palm and fingers unpleasantly. Their skulls were no longer about to explode because they didn’t have to think about themselves, not let the swirling, potent emotional thoughts that beguile them make their lives seem any closer to ending.

I know more about Jayshua than anyone, though, because in a certain sense that’s who I was, before everything that happened happened. I know more about him than he knew about his family, and certainly more than any of them knew about Hortine Talley. The truth of Dr. Frompt’s assassination would be revealed in time. The challenge of their situation had more to do with their ability to cooperate at that moment than it did the actions of anyone else. Their fate was in their own hands, so to speak.

They had to worry about the broadcasts that allowed everyone to know exactly who had done this horrible deed to Dr. Frompt. “ROGUES!” the broadcast tremored, “Find them and report them as quickly as you can!” Their families were all depicted as malevolently existing in society with doctored family portrait photos, in which all members of each family appeared far sneakier and suspicious than they generally did in ordinary life. 

The Talleys, the Lancasters, the Harps, the Mosers. So many families implicated, those four listed just being the most notable. Lots of people on the run together. The feeling from the Frompt Regime was they couldn’t get very far without being observed, and once that happened, they would see that it’s never time to assassinate a government figure.

Hortine Talley made a reasonable suggestion regarding their escape, though. “We must go where no one is likely to follow, where no one will chance to see us. We must escape through the desert, despite the risks. It’s our only option.” Jayshua agreed that it was a good point, a reasonable plan, but he resented that everyone else also agreed that it was a reasonable plan, at least so quickly. He would have preferred Hortine needing to make a stronger argument for the deservedness of his leadership.

The heat in the desert was intense, feeling like it radiated from inside their bodies. The landscape, though, was something spectacular. Mammoth outcroppings of coppery rock that extended what seemed like miles into the sky. Long expanses of sandy tendrils wriggling like an army of black serpents in the shadows of their windswept depressions. The occasional bit of desert flora, a cactus or the claw-like appendages of an aberrant tree desirous of some amount of rainfall.

They were surely going to starve or die of dehydration, Jayshua knew, experiencing many of the disorienting effects of these afflictions already himself. And it was going to have to be Hortine Talley’s failure, his failure to deliver his people from the injustice of this ignominious fate.

But Hortine was somehow able to account for this ostensible lack and deliver to the people what they needed for sustenance, for drink, for their own survival. Even medical care was provided. All their needs were miraculously met. It was some kind of cheat, Jayshua began to think. It couldn’t be real, manifested from nowhere -- and how? From some strange but unlikely source of all-powerful altruism? That wasn’t possible, none of it was.

Jayshua’s family sat in a small clearing, amid the crumbles of sand and dirt that made up most of the sprawling landmass they were traveling in. They were eating tactile food, drinking a liquid that appeared to be water. They seemed generally comfortable and in good spirits, good health, too. Jayshua stared at them in disbelief: his wife, Eleanor; daughter, Penny; and son, Jayshua Jr.

“You’re all so well nourished,” Jayshua said, stupefied but grateful, and feeling something else he couldn’t quite pin down.

“All because of the beneficence of our great leader. Hortine Talley virtually guarantees our survival,” Eleanor said, staring excitedly at Jayshua, a look of admiration that was not meant for him.

“I guess,” Jayshua said, under his breath. “Where’s he getting all of this for us?”

“Why worry about that, Jayshua? All that matters is we are being provided for. We are going to get out of this. There's still time, the opportunity, for us, for all of us to have a life after this. For the children, Jayshua. The children might be saved,” she whispered this last bit, so that the children would not overhear.

“I know you’re right. And I am grateful, really, I am. It’s just. It’s these times, the times in which we live. They’re trying, tiresome times. Times in which I don’t even know what to think anymore. I’m just one man, and I’m trying, trying to figure out my way in a world that no longer makes sense to me, where death is always knocking at the door. Do you ever feel it, death, behind the door, knocking with increasing vigor and consistency? Don’t you agree these times are trying in the ways that I mention?” Jayshua had turned from Eleanor  during his monologue, possibly in an unconscious attempt at adding a kind of stoic gravity to his speech, and when he went to see if she were still following him, if she ever had been at all, he learned that she was in fact asleep. He felt responsible for this, but no more so than the times in which they lived ought to feel responsible for what they had done. He was also disappointed that pouring his heart out, as he was certain he had done, had resonated so little with the love of his life.

Woe unto me, he thought. He honestly and earnestly thought, woe unto me. And then he thought these words, too: If only there was some way to get to the marrow of what I’m feeling, deep in my soul.

He found himself compelled in the direction of something, somewhere. There was something he was meant to learn. This something he was meant to learn likewise definitely meant that he needed to go in the direction of Hortine Talley. He considered this merely a coincidence of fate. How could he have known what he would find once he got to Hortine Talley?

How could anyone know what great leaders are up to when not leading greatly? Everyone would sense in their heart of hearts that Jayshua was operating with concern for all of them.

Jayshua sneaked up and observed Hortine Talley when Talley was of the belief he was largely, if not entirely, unobserved.

And there it was, Talley kneeling in the sand -- in that hot, hot desert heat, gusts of dragon’s breath blasting at him from what felt like every direction -- hands pressed to his face, shoulders bobbing up and down. He was weeping. He spoke words softly to himself. And though he risked exposing his presence, Jaysha crept forward to better hear them.

“There's no hope, no reason to continue counting on miracles for succor,” Hortine said. And as though answering himself, “But that's no reason not to try. Some of us could die. I could die. Hopefully not. But this is our only chance.”

Jayshua scurried off, then, ostensibly unseen. But he didn't go back to the others to report on what he now knew. It was too alarming. He was shook. He was shaking.

He was all alone out in the desert, and feeling very much alone.

“You could report on them, you know. There's still time to return to us,” a voice said, a voice he worried at first was coming from inside his own head, his own mind.

Jayshua searched the darkening desert landscape, and right there in its midst was a pile of brush that wore two googly eyes and what appeared to be the receiver of some sort of sophisticated audio-reception machine.

They had been found.

“You've found us?” Jayshua said.

“It isn't enough for your party to be found, not without a witness willing to publically condemn the other guilty parties. We need a brave soul among you to do that. But who’s that truly and earnestly and uniquely brave anymore?” the Googly-eyed Bush said.

Jayshua could feel himself being manipulated and at the same time inexplicably felt himself willingly accepting the manipulation. Hortine Talley knew their cause was lost but didn't have the courage to tell his people, only the delusion to force himself and his followers wrongfully, probably fatally, forward. Jayshua had the chance now to make another choice, a choice that would require boldness and bravery that no one else among them would possess.

And when Jayshua made the difficult choice he had to make, he knew the tears of his people -- his wife and children particularly -- were a result of Hortine Talley’s failed leadership and less out of any upset Jayshua himself had directly caused. Plus, it was traumatic to be led away by the Special Police.

The invective that was hurled his way, aspersions like “traitor” and “saboteur” -- mainly shouted by Hortine Talley, who also tried to punch him before being beaten down by the Special Police, but also by Eleanor and the children -- was hard to hear and also unfair but not terribly surprising as they worked toward processing their grief more constructively.

Jayshua had been very careful in observing the facts. And it was simply a matter of facts. And while there was no telling what the government would do with the others, his wife and children and the rest, he had proven himself to be of the finest quality, bravely facing the truth in the face of adversity created by a bad leader and difficult times.

A leader nothing like Dr. Gerald W. Frompt, who actually wasn't dead and commended Jayshua for all he’d done in bravely telling the Special Police everything Frompt had wanted to know, and allowing Jayshua to recede into society’s background.

Jayshua who is me and who is not me, spending time with all the rest of us who also get to tell our stories.  being being