Saturday, December 26, 2015

Heads - A Short Story by Ben Blanchette

     Close your eyes, Elise. Take a deep breath and practice your yoga breathing. That's good, Elise. Breathe in four beats, hold it, now out. Now imagine you're back at the office. It's a slow day, annual reports have come in and everything looks fine. Your stock is stable so there's nothing to worry about. Good. Now, search deep inside your mind. Find the implant.
     "Hey, Russian guy. What's the girl doing?"
     Ignore the boy, Elise. Focus on the implant.
     "I think she is trying to deactivate the implant. I once saw a guy who did this. He tried so hard his head exploded. There was brain matter in the pancakes.”
     "What did the aliens do?”
     "They did nothing. No one complained about the brain matter in the food."
     Elise pursed her lips as reflux flowed up her esophagus. It retreated, leaving a lingering vile taste.
     “Hey Russian guy, did you see that? She almost puked."
     “Please, girl, do not vomit in the pancakes."
     Elise opened her eyes. She stood at a short metallic table, dressed in a tight gray jumpsuit which clung to her body like spandex. A single light flickered overhead, filling the room in a dim, epileptic gloom.
     The teenage boy and the Russian stood at opposite ends of the table with Elise between them. Small metal bowls covered the table. They glowed with various shades of diluted neon colors. Both males wore the same skin-tight jumpsuits, accentuating the bones protruding from their skeletal frames. Short stubbly hair covered their once clean shaven heads. A twig sized antenna extended out of their foreheads, encircled by a crude oval of pale stitches contrasted against bruised skin.
     “What is wrong with you two?" Elise said. “If you could just shut up for a few minutes, I can figure this out. Resolving problems is what I do. It's my job. And I'm getting out of here.”     The loose skin on the boy’s face crumpled into a twisted mess and he began to sob, accompanied by sorrowful wails. The wrinkled creases created an illusion, aging the boy from fifteen to seventy in an instant.
     Elise cringed.
     “I do not get it,” the Russian said, shouting over the echo of the boy's weeping. "You have been here a few days, maybe, I do not know, so why do you bully him? The guy before you did not speak English and he did not mind us talking."
     The Russian’s lanky, ossified fingers stretched forward and reached into a bowl. It retrieved a cucumber-like object with splotches of blackened warts. It glowed yellow. With robotic precision, his hands sliced the object into minuscule pieces, then scraped it into a bowl with the large knife and passed it to Elise. Her own hand, now pale and thin, accepted the bowl and added the contents to a thick creamy mixture.
     “And what happened to him?” Elise said.
     “I told you already. His head exploded. It was very gross.”
     The boy wailed louder.
     “Look, kid, I’m sorry,” Elise said, turning to him, her hands stirring at a rapid pace.
     "You are sorry?" the Russian said. "The boy stands here and makes breakfast for aliens just like you. Why do you make him cry?"
     "Look," Elise said, the boy continued his lament. "We seem to be having personnel conflicts in the workplace. That's understandable, considering the conditions. But, if I can have a few moments of peace, I promise I'll stop making the kid cry. I just need more time to evaluate the situation and determine the best way to... "
     “It cannot be done,” the Russian said. “I saw the head explode.”
     “I don’t believe you," Elise said. "Why would aliens go through all of the trouble to abduct and enslave us just to blow our heads off? It’s bad business.”
     “Maybe they are stupid aliens.”
     Elise passed the bowl to the boy without making eye contact. He was calmer now, his cries deteriorating into slow, gagging coughs. Tears dripped into the mixture. The boy slopped globs onto a sizzling black stove top and the mixture flattened out into a lumpy mess that quickly hardened into a pancake. The boy flipped each one after exactly thirty seconds. Elise had counted.
     “If they can hack into our brains,” Elise said, “then they're certainly not stupid. But we can each use our brain to fight back. I figure it's like learning to move a muscle for the first time, like wiggling your ears. Have you ever tried to wiggle your ears?"
     The crying ceased. Surprised, Elise turned to the boy.
     “I can wiggle my ears,” the boy said, sniffling. "See?"
     The boy contorted his face, stretching and wrinkling the skin on his brow, bouncing his eyebrows. His ears didn’t move.
     "That's nice," Elise said. "Keep it up. Only ten thousand more hours of practice to master it."
     "I think you are foolish," the Russian said. "I saw guy's head explode and he was doing the same thing as you - thinking very hard and saying, ‘I can do this! I can do this!’"
     Elise glared.
     "Do you enjoy this place?" she snapped at him. "Do you enjoy sleeping on your feet, or eating these foul, glowing pancakes when they’re shoved into your mouth? Based on your heroine chic appearance, I will assume you don’t. Likewise, do you know what happens when you urinate in your jumpsuit? I don’t know if the odor engulfing this room is the food or our own feces. Maybe I’m crazy but I want to feel below my neck again. I want to shower. I want my life back. Don’t you want to go back to Russia and go back to...whatever you did?”
     “How do you know I’m from Russia?”
     “Because you sound Russian,” Elise said. “And why can’t you or the boy remember anything; your names, where you are from, or even how long you’ve been here. Doesn’t that bother you?” 
     The Russian shook his head. “Not really,” he said.
     “Well I’m haven’t forgotten who I am! I used to be the VP of corporate finance for a multi-million dollar company. I was the youngest and most promising VP the company had ever seen. I have something to live for. I have something to fight for. Now give me some quiet to think.”
     "Please don't do it" the boy petitioned. Elise turned back to him. His face was quivering, like a volcano of sobs were on the verge of erupting. "I don't want to see your head explode."
     “Don't worry, kid,” Elise said, "the strange Russian man has been here too long. He doesn't know what he's talking about."
     The Russian’s eyes dropped to his hands. They were chopping a blue-glowing ball that resembled a frozen tomato. He didn’t look at Elise.
     “I had a family...I think,” the Russian whispered.
     Elise ignored him and closed her eyes.
     Calm down and think of something happy. Think of...think of James. Remember the trip to Bermuda you took with him. There were palm trees, sand and salty air blowing in, off the water. James was strutting in his speedo and you’re laughing because his farmer’s tan looked ridiculous. He's out there somewhere thinking about you right now. He misses you. You haven't actually talked to him much in the last two months, but I'm sure he misses you. Now focus, look deep inside your mind. Look deep...
     The word floated in the darkness behind Elise’s eyelids in bold white text. Elise opened her eyes and the text remained, though barely visible. She blinked rapidly and with the last shudder of her eyelids, the word vanished. 
     Elise found herself staring at the boy. His eyes were closed, head slumped over to the side. His hands continued flipping the glowing pancakes. She turned to the Russian who also had his head to the side, though he seemed to be scratching his ear on his shoulder. The boy began to snore.
     Elise closed her eyes. New words immediately appeared. She read them slowly, then reread them, trying to grasp their meaning.
     Elise peered around the room searching for cameras or two way mirrors, but saw little more than darkness surrounding the table.
     They’re watching us. Was that a warning? Do they know I’m close to figuring it out. Yes, they’re trying to stop me. What else can this mean?
     New words appeared.
     Elise smiled. She was right. It was a threat. 
     Then go ahead and shut me down. I could use a good nap.
     Elise’s throat tightened. She hadn’t expected a response. 
     The Russian began to hum while the boy snored. Half distracted, Elise took her time responding, trying to strategize her response. She wasn’t used to negotiating when she didn’t have the upper hand.
     You wouldn’t kill me.
     The text hovered for a long moment then vanished.
     I am a valuable asset. You’ve invested a lot in me. 
     The text remained so Elise continued.
     Seriously, think of all the resources you've sunk into this operation. The implant in my forehead must cost a fortune to develop. Then factor in the cost of the medical training for your surgical staff...and what about the fuel and labor to run your spaceship? That can’t be cheap. Killing me now would be junking a capital expense before it’s had a chance to fully depreciate. I’m a long-term asset.
     Then you need to reassess your business model because you can’t just throw away money like that. 
     Elise stopped and realized something.
     You’re with the government aren’t you? 
     I WILL DO IT.
     No you won't. You're only afraid I’ve figured out how to escape. So maybe we can make a deal. My escape is inevitable so why not let me go and I won’t tell anyone?
     Why not?
     So what? You’re likely an expendable employee with  a job that is dismal at best. 
     YES. IT IS.
     Then why do it? Why not aspire higher?
     Don’t you’re offspring deserve more?
     No response followed. The Russian was singing now in a language that Elise identified as Russian.
     Well, mysterious alien friend, let me tell you something. I don’t have offspring, but I had a great job. a nice condo, and I had James, kind of. I did important things. How can you not feel guilty about what you've done to us? 
     Fine. I can see I’m not getting through to you. Let me speak to your supervisor.
     The last line of text vanished. Elise waited, letting the silence stretch out as long as it needed. She didn’t think such a tactic would work, but she had to try.
     "Girl, please stop," the Russian said.
     Elise opened her eyes, a beaming smile stretched across her face. The muscles used for the expression ached from disuse.
     "I'm on to something,” Elise exhaled in a hoarse whisper. “They're talking to me in my head. They’re trying to scare me. I think they're afraid I'll figure it out!"
     The Russian studied her cautiously while he passed her another bowl.
     "You are talking to voices in your head?" he said.
     "Not voices," Elise said. "Text appears on my eyeballs and I can read it like on a computer screen. And I can respond through my thoughts. They’re spying on us too. I’m not sure how but if they can hack into our brains then it makes sense for them to monitor us through our senses like vision and hearing. It’s the most efficient way.”
     The Russian processed this for a long moment. The light flicked overhead.
     “I think you are crazy,” he declared.
     At the opposite end of the table the boy grunted, and they both turned to him. His head rolled, chin resting on his chest. His hands collected the remaining pancakes and placed them on a surface beside him next to five similar plates. A conveyor belt came to life with a jolt and it carried away the pancakes into the darkness.
     “I’m not crazy. I’m on to something.”
     "What would you do if you escaped?" the Russian asked. “We could be on a spaceship or a far away planet. You are more likely to be sucked out an airlock or eaten by a big scary alien. You would not escape.”
     Elise’s throat tightened again.  The bowls, table, utensils; everything but the strange glowing food was familiar enough to be human. She had assumed they were still somewhere on Earth. The Russian had a point. They could be anywhere in the universe.
     "I don't care," Elise said.
     Text appeared, causing Elise to flinch.
     "You're lying," Elise said after reading the message.
     “I am not lying,” the Russian said. “We could be on Pluto.”
     "Why do this to me if you were just going to wipe us out?” she said. "Your whole operation is poorly managed and highly inefficient. Is this the supervisor?"
     "I don't care about your job. You can't do this to me. I’m a human being and humans are strong and powerful. And when I get out of here I'm going to make sure you're more than fired. We’re going to blow you out of the sky."
     Elise stopped there, feeling her chest expand as she heaved in a series of deep breaths.
     "That’s it. You are crazy," the Russian said.
     Elise dropped her spoon.
     “I’m not crazy,” she gasped. “I think I've...”
     Elise's body fell limp. A hand caught the rim of the bowl as she toppled over, splattering the glowing contents across the table. A glob of mixture struck the sleeping boy's face as Elise hit the floor. 
     The boy's head popped up in surprise, jerking from side to side as he surveyed the room. Something cool, wet, and lumpy was running down his cheek. And the girl was missing.
     The boy released a deafening shriek.
     "Please calm down," the Russian said. “It is okay.”
     The boy stopped screaming. “What...happened?” he said, panting.
     "The girl passed out,” the Russian answered. “She will wake up and forget where she is. I have seen this happen before.”
     “So...her head didn’t explode?"
     The boy looked across the table at the man, eyes squinting in the darkness.
     “How long do you think it will it take? I’m almost done with this batch.”

Utah Valley University's Fall 2015 Edition of Warp and Weave.