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Cast of Wonders 286: Staff Picks 2017 – A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

This week’s episode is hosted by associate editor Susie Rodriguez.


A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

by M. Darusha Wehm

You have always been a princess.

When you are six years old, your hat is a cardboard cone covered in glitter glue with a cellophane veil. Your dress began life as a pillowcase in the free box at the Goodwill. Your best friend Ines has a store-bought costume, her gown soft and sky blue like Princess Karima’s. You aren’t envious, though. You love your pillowcase dress and hat that makes you almost as tall as your mother. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 265: A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

by M. Darusha Wehm

 

You have always been a princess.

When you are six years old, your hat is a cardboard cone covered in glitter glue with a cellophane veil. Your dress began life as a pillowcase in the free box at the Goodwill. Your best friend Ines has a store-bought costume, her gown soft and sky blue like Princess Karima’s. You aren’t envious, though. You love your pillowcase dress and hat that makes you almost as tall as your mother.

Ines twirls around and around until she nearly falls over, clutching you to stay upright. “Ooh, I’ll never get used to riding a magic carpet.”

You giggle and say, “That’s why I ride in a carriage pulled by eight golden ponies.”

“Can I come to the ball with you, then?” Ines sinks to the ground, her skirt billowing around her like a cloud.

“Aren’t they adorable?” Ines’s father says, his eyes crinkling.

“Yeah,” your mother says, “off in their own little world.”

“Come on,” Mr. Solano says, “that’s one of the great things about being a kid. All that imagination, all those dreams.” He looks at you then his eyes dart back to your mother. “They can be anything they want at this age. Might as well let them enjoy it.”

“You’re right,” your mother says, handing him an old ice cream bucket. “Thanks for taking them. I can really use the rest.”

“It’s no trouble,” he says, then kneels down to where you and Ines are sitting, playing with the material of her dress. “Come on, my two little princesses, let’s go get some candy.”

You get up and your mother adjusts the sash on your dress. “Only two pieces on the way home,” she says. “You want it to last until Christmas, okay?”

You nod, excited about the prospect of even two pieces of candy. It’s been forever since you’ve had candy.

Your family has been eating spaghetti with ketchup for days. You love spaghetti and ketchup, not realizing that it’s just what’s left at the end of the Food Bank hamper. You also don’t know that your mother lost her job, which is why she is there when you get home from school and has had time to make your costume. You know your father is working double shifts, though. That’s why he isn’t there to see you in your pretty dress. Your mom goes to take a photo as you and Ines stand together, grinning at each other while she fumbles with her old phone.

“Come on,” Ines says, grabbing your hand. “We need to hurry if we’re going to get to the ball on time.”

 


 

When you are nine, both your parents are working. You get the official Princess app for your birthday and each day after school you and Ines lie on the Lady Dawn Pink™ comforter she’s had on her bed since you were little, looking at the latest photoshoots and reading about the princesses.

“Did you see that Cheyenne just got back from a trip to New Zealand,” you say, paging through the latest updates. “They wouldn’t let her bring Wolf into the country with her. Isn’t that awful? It’s not as if he’s some ordinary dog. He’s, like, partially part of her.”

“It’s like last year,” Ines says, “when that one country wouldn’t let Princess Karima travel on her flying carpet within their border.”

“I know, how dumb. What’s airspace security anyway?” you say, rolling your eyes. You both go back to the pictures.

“I can’t decide if Karima or Cheyenne is my favourite,” Ines says a few minutes later.

“Rhona,” you say, your fingers tracing the flowing curls of her beautiful red hair.

“Rhona?! But she doesn’t even look like you. She’s so… pale.”

You don’t look like any of them, with your skinny legs and bitten fingernails. You shrug.

“She’s beautiful.”

“They’re all beautiful,” Ines says, her forehead wrinkling. “When I’m ten, mom says I can get my hair cut like Karima’s.” She holds up the ends of her long, black hair, effecting a makeshift bob. “She said no to the eyeliner, though.” Ines lets her hair fall back down. “How about you?”

You don’t know what to do with makeup. Your mother wears little, but one afternoon when both your parents were at work you spent an hour in the bathroom with her eyeshadow, blush and lipstick. The best you could do was make yourself look like a clown. You can tell that Ines would never look like a clown. But she’s pretty to begin with, everyone says so. You are clever. Or strong. Never pretty.

“My hair’s okay the way it is,” you say, running your fingers though the short cut. “I’d look dumb with long hair.”

Ines shrugs and the two of you look at pictures of her with with different haircuts until it’s time for you to go home.

At night, when you can’t sleep, you imagine you are Rhona, with a gown of green velvet, a mind sharp enough to trick a wizard, a face pretty enough to bewitch an entire kingdom and a long trail of flaming red hair.

 


 

When you are twelve, Ines gets weird. All she wants to talk about is romance. You think it’s because of Princess Mei Ling’s wedding last month.

“Don’t you think Cheyenne’s prince is better-looking than Mei Ling’s prince?” Ines asks. You don’t know what to say. You don’t care about the princes.

“I mean, I know he’s older,” she says, not waiting for you to answer, “but I think he looks distinguished. That silver hair at his temples makes him look, I dunno, classy, like one of those actors in a black and white movie.” She flicks through the images on her phone. She bought the Princes app with her first babysitting money and now you sit apart in her room, each looking at your own pictures on your own phones.

“Do you ever dream about your wedding? I think about it all the time. Mei Ling’s was so beautiful,” Ines says, not seeming to notice that you haven’t said a word, “I want gold leaf on my wedding cake. And a dress like hers, but with blue accents, not pink. And what did you think about her prince’s uniform? Guys look great in uniforms.” She stops talking and looks over at you. “Want to watch the video again on the big screen?”

The Solanos have a big tv in their living room, and you often go over to watch movies. You nod, even though you think the wedding was kind of boring. But all the Princesses were there and Rhona looked incredible in her formal gown. You watch it all again for the millionth time, impatiently sitting through the wedding part to get to the ball. When Mei Ling enters the main salon on a flying horse, you gasp with delight as if you’d never seen it before. When Rhona dances with her prince, time stops.

That night, you dream that instead of Rhona’s prince, it is you she dances with, your arm around her waist, her head on your shoulder. You twirl around the ballroom, your feet not quite touching the floor, her hair flying behind you both in a trail of auburn curls.

 


 

When you are seventeen, you work part-time in a bakery. Your alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning, Rhona’s voice singing her theme song sweetly in your ear. It almost makes waking in the dark bearable. You spend two hours each morning decorating the elaborate fairy cakes that each cost more than you’ll be paid that week, then you go to school and try to stay awake in class.

Ines texts you in history:

> new p movie opens 2moro lets go!

You’ve been saving all your bakery money and summer job wages in a college fund. You know now that your parents can barely keep up with their debts and won’t be able to help, and you don’t have the grades for a scholarship. Your father has steady work in construction, but it was never enough when your mother couldn’t find work. Your mother went to college and she’s always told you that an education is the most important thing. “Wishing for something won’t make it so,” she says. “You have to put yourself out to get anywhere in this world.”

She says that it was her degree which got her the job she has now, assistant to a junior manager at a big firm downtown. “Who would you hire?” she asks you, “someone just out of high school or someone who’s been to college? You can’t just expect to get a good job without it anymore.” Sometimes you feel like you want to scream whenever you hear the word college.

But you know your mother is right. Your parents seem to work all the time–you can’t remember the last time the three of you did something together that wasn’t a hasty meal or a half hour in front of the second-hand, tiny tv. Between school and the bakery, it feels like you work all the time, too.

You text Ines back.

> k

You get to the theater two hours early and still barely get in. The audience is mostly teens and college age women, a few boyfriends and just a smattering of guys there of their own accord. But there are hardly any little kids–this isn’t one of those origin story films. It’s a grown-up story about post-princess life, featuring Bianca–the first of the princesses, a stately matron now–and Lianne, who became a princess when you were a kid. The story begins as Lianne arrives at Bianca’s castle in her carriage, glorious and shining with her footmen bustling about. She enters the Great Hall to find a table groaning under a feast of delights.

Ines elbows you and whispers, “Those are the fairy cakes you make.”

It’s true, the bakery where you work specializes in replica royal sweets. Being around such beautiful things is the main appeal of the job. You nod and shush her.

Over the next ninety minutes, you are transported to a magic world that you can barely believe exists in the same universe as your own life. Glorious silken gowns transformed from ordinary box-store dresses. Flying chariots whisking the princesses to fabulous balls or feasts laden with luscious food no one eats. Lives of glamour and leisure. For a moment, you wonder if it is even real.

Then comes the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Everyone has been talking about the rumour that a new princess would be revealed in the film. Your breath catches in your throat when you see her for the first time. You know it’s her: she is too radiant, too perfect to be working in some grimy urban store. Bianca and Lianne have gotten lost on their way back to Lianne’s château, and walk into a small Korean grocery in some nameless city, looking for directions. The girl behind the counter must be about your age, but her days of worrying about grades and college are over. The princesses recognize her true nature immediately and take her away with them. No one objects. It is as if it were ordained in the stars.

They say that the movie story is based on her real life, that she really was discovered in some store just like that last year. Seo-yeon, an urban princess, elevated from the streets to a castle in the clouds. Your eyes fill with tears. You can’t count the number of times you’ve wished for that moment. To have what you’ve known all your life finally be reflected in someone else’s eyes. That you, too, are more than you appear to be.

If Seo-yeon could be plucked like a flower from her life of toil, surely it could happen to anyone? Even to you?

 


 

When you are twenty-two, you pull a crumpled bill from your pocket. It’s enough for a draft beer at the campus bar and you’ve earned one. You are thirty thousand dollars in debt, you can’t remember the last time you slept more than five hours in a night, but tomorrow you will walk onstage with hundreds of other people and walk off with a degree.

The bartender slides the beer toward you and takes your money, her dark eyes lingering on you for a moment. You’re not in the mood to talk, so you take your beer to a quiet table near the back. You sip and look around. There aren’t as many people in the place as there would be on a Friday night, but at three in the afternoon on the day before graduation, it’s crowded enough. You recognize the students’ uniform of thrift store coats, broken book bags and five-year-old phones.

You notice a guy from your post-structural economics class a couple of tables over; he gives you the eye-contact-and-nod then goes back to his animated conversation. He’s wearing a pale yellow t-shirt with a faded image of Princess Bonita printed on it. You know he’s wearing it ironically, but you had that exact shirt when you were a kid.

You remember working with whatshisname–Charlie, Carl, something like that–on a class project. You made this infographic that showed how many people out of a hundred ever got out of the economic class where they were born. It was a good chart. You got an A minus.

Your phone buzzes and you flip it over. Ines. You haven’t seen her since Christmas, when you were both home and her engagement news overshadowed the holiday. She found her prince.

> going home after grad lets get 2gether

^ ill be back this wkend

^ coffee?

> yah

> wanna ask u about cakes!!!

You wonder how she and Mikhail can afford a fairy cake for their wedding. They are both going to be paying off their student loans as long as you are, and neither has a job lined up after graduation. Your mother told you that they think they will have to live with Ines’s parents after they get married.

“It’s no coincidence,” Carl or Charlie’s slurred voice interrupts your thoughts from across the bar. “We’re living in a new feudalism, ruled by unrealistic hopes to join an unattainable elite. Statistically, the rags to riches dream isn’t real, but we think if we just work hard enough, it’ll happen for us. We all think we’re kings in peasant’s clothes, but we’re just children playing make-believe. It’s time we decided to live in the real world.” Other voices rise to join his in belligerent agreement and you recognize arguments you’ve heard yourself make on other afternoons like this one.

Maybe Ines has it right–buy an expensive cake, have a fairytale wedding day. What’s another few thousand dollars? At least then you’d have something to remember, one moment when you were someone’s princess. But it’s so hard to let the dream go.

You don’t feel like a peasant, you never have. But you know if you keep pretending that one day you’ll meet your fairy godmother, she’ll wave her wand and suddenly everything will all be fine, that you’ll spend your life being a servant to a fantasy.

You finish your beer, thinking of those days when all it took for a magical transformation was a rolled up piece of cardboard and a pillowcase dress. You flick your finger over your phone, Rhona’s beautiful face filling the screen. Those blue eyes. That red hair. Can’t you live in your imagination with her just a little longer?

After all, you’ve always been a princess. Haven’t you?

Episode 113: Staff Pick 2013 – The Malthus Alternative by Jamie Mason

Show Notes

Graeme’s staff pick for 2013 is The Malthus Alternative by Jamie Mason. I guess the staff pick is meant to be from 2013 but I couldn’t resist looking over our whole back-catalogue. From the time this idea was floated, two stories were foremost in my mind. At first I thought I wouldn’t go with them because I narrate both and it seemed self-serving. But honestly I love both stories and so I went with my favourite, which is The Malthus Alternative by Jamie Mason. It ran as Episode 48, way back in August 2012.

Why did I like it so much? I think the foremost reason is the main character, Michael. He feels himself an outsider, an observer, a thinker. His path through life has been set by his father and he feels ensnared. Through martial arts and his mat sister Glenda, he senses that he can take a different path if he has the courage to choose. And choose he does, despite the personal sacrifice. And even in that sacrifice, we see at the end he is still fighting.

I find that both inspiring and challenging. It’s easy to follow an expected path. It’s easy to look around and see there is much with the world that isn’t right. It’s even easy to see what to do to make a difference, set some things right. But it can be hard to come to those conclusions and act. I respect Michael’s decisions and actions and I’d like to think I’m capable of them too.

Jamie has packed a lot of ideas and thoughtful introspection into a small space, something that’s not easy to do. Jamie, thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


The Malthus Alternative

by Jamie Mason

 

13.

 

“The gantry or the gallows.” Father chuckles. “When I think of all the money wasted on this –” (he gestures through the tinted windows of the limousine at the ruined space-port beyond) “– garbage it makes me sick – sick, I tell you! Colonize space? Mankind would have done better creating space on our own world, not blasting off in search of others!”

I hold my tongue – a necessary job skill when working for Father. My childhood dreams of a career in theater or publishing have given way to the reality of a senior management position with Global Confinement Solutions, Father’s flagship concern. GCS is a place where arguing with Father is accounted (like live theater or literature or space travel) a complete waste of time. And the team at GCS should know. Because time is our business.

“The collapse of the space industry resulted in a real-estate windfall.” I use the neutral tone appropriate to business meetings (– any time spent with Father is a business meeting). “The Cuernavaca site is perfect for the ICE project. The old rocket storage facility, for example, provides several thousand square meters ideal for –”

“I’ve read the specs.” Father flaps a hand. Gazing out the window at the fence-line, his voice softens in uncharacteristic wonder. “Just look at them out there …”

I glance past the ranks of armed soldiers toward the view beyond. “Human misery.” It is difficult to maintain the neutral tone. But I manage.

“God may have condemned space travel, but He sure sanctified the profit motive! The Congruence says so. And here’s another chance to make a buck.” Father taps the glass separating us from the driver. The limo plunges skyward on a rising hum. I glance down at the facility once dedicated to exploring new worlds and experience a twinge of wistfulness.

“Just imagine if the New Frontier had worked! Other worlds for people to colonize instead of crowding every square inch of the planet. Space travel –”

“Is a pipedream – a dream, I tell you! No, Michael. What we need now is not a new frontier, but a new distraction. The constant pushing outward of human consciousness is what’s gotten us into this mess. We need a return of Mankind’s attention to more mundane affairs.” His voice drops to a purr. “Garibaldi’s breakthrough will change everything.”

Father gazes down at the starving multitudes crowding the fence-line and chuckles.

“The gantry or the gallows,” he whispers. “Make room! Make room …”

 

12.

 

I first read about Thomas Malthus in my early teens – a year or two before joining the Congruence. I remember discussing him on the bus-ride home with Jeremy the day that I first met you.

“Who said, ‘The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man’?” Jeremy’s tone is crisp, confident. He is in the Cadet Corps, destined for a position as an officer with the Crusaders in one of their endless wars abroad.

“Malthus.” I gaze out the window, preoccupied. I have butterflies in my stomach – but not because of the Eighteenth Century economist we’re studying in History of Pre-Congruence America.

“What’s up, boyo?” Jeremy’s tone softens. “You haven’t been yourself today.”

“I – ah – have an appointment this afternoon …”

“Doctor?” For all his tough-guy swagger, Jeremy cannot stop a worried frown from creasing his features. We have been friends for a long time.

“No. Something important.”

 

11.

 

You were never meant to enter my life for real. You were only meant to be a dream. But something happened. Some mechanism in my life, in the machinery of this room that punishes the guilty. We are only ever meant to inhabit our memories –to relive the past continually as opposed to moving ahead in linear time as others do. That is our punishment for various crimes, we who are condemned to the ICE Project. Enslavement to the Machine substitutes for hard time, delivering the sum total of an incarceration experience in virtual style. A metal cap to keep us walking around inside our own heads forever: chairs are cheaper than cells.

My crime was treason. The son of a wealthy family, I was expected to choose convenience over love. I accepted this. In much the same way that a carnivore accepts an endless diet of meat, I saw my days marching forward into a future as ordered as the rows of figures on an accountant’s spreadsheet.

The only escape I ever had from this – from the inevitability of my fate – came in the dojo …

“If you must,” sighs Mother. I am reliving the day she overcomes her distaste at the notion of my doing martial arts, of rolling and grappling across the mats with the sons and daughters of cops and miners and factory workers. She signs the check and leaves me to my own devices – a precious pair of hours in which to grab my gym bag and uniform and escape to a place beyond her ordered world of servants and manners and money.

That was where I first saw you. Where I see you every day …

You are calm. Your clay-colored skin is dark against the white of your gi (for we only wore white in those days). Bare feet spread shoulder width apart, you gaze at me skeptically, unafraid – a strange girl, so different from any I have known before. I am a newcomer to the dojo – you, an experienced student already wearing a colored belt. Your eyes glint with amusement as you watch me fumble through my clumsy break-falls and first few techniques. And I am struck by attraction – not to your body, but to the calm engine of your will that idles and purrs and vibrates so smoothly behind your calm, clay-colored eyes …

A pause. The Machine thrums and clicks. And I am thrown ahead, to another moment in my life.

 

10.

 

‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.’ ” Mr. Heward glares down his nose at me. He adores his other pupils but treats me with a chilly disdain. I have done something to earn his eternal dislike and am learning that no amount of joking or striving or deference will ever change this fact.

“Who said that, Michael?”

I glance over at Jeremy. He seems amused at my confusion. Our relationship has changed ever since he, along with most of the other boys in class, joined the hockey team that Heward coaches. I cannot skate. Suddenly, I am alone on the outside.

“Malthus,” I say quietly.

There is a lengthy pause as Heward parses my tone for insolence. Finding none he nods and begins reading the next question in the exam we wrote last week – the one he handed back to us moments ago. A large red C-minus dominates the cover sheet of my copy.

I glance at Jeremy again.

You are a loser, boyo,” he whispers. And grins.

 

9.

 

“Art!” Father shouts. “Your job is to make money, not art. Art is a prole’s game. Your place is at the top – the top, I tell you – of the pinnacle of the pyramid, helping to organize the work of the lower orders. You must take your place. It has been prepared for you and no one else can fill it!”

So I was told. And raised. I struggled through the cruel initiations of the upper class – the ritual humiliations of the playing field, the endless semesters of mathematics and science. The labor was grueling (especially for me who, in retrospect, no doubt suffered from some sort of learning disability). But I put my head down. Shouldered through. And what sustained me was …

“Michael,” sensei calls. I stand. Walk to the mats.

“Glenda.”

You rise from the line of students to stand across from me. Your eyes sparkle and flash with confidence in your skill. For we have been training together almost a year now and under your supervision I have grown from a clumsy novice to a competent amateur. But my technique still lacks the grace, the fluid fire of your own. As we bow and advance to fight, I sense the certainty, the determination in your movements. I have longed to express my admiration for your capabilities but my first attempt to share this with you in words was met by your mocking gaze, by silence. So now we close and speak in the only language left to us …

It’s not your fault that you are the way you are, any more than it’s my fault I fell in love with you. Trapped here in this room that makes people experience their lives over and over again, powerless to change their mistakes, I have searched for a thread of meaning to make sense of this chaos and pain. That thread is you.

The heart beats. The breath rises and falls. Memories compile. And a life is born.

 

8.

 

“Before the Congruence, all was darkness.” The padre glares down at us from the pulpit, causing a ripple of obedience through the crowd of fourteen- and fifteen year-old boys that might have been called ‘miraculous’ had not use of such terms been carefully regulated.

“Before President O’Dell was elected, only Unbelievers occupied the highest levels of power. They believed in secularism, not Congruence. They celebrated separateness, not Union. They worshipped Man … not God.”

I swallow and gaze down at the black lily I hold. All of us boys who are to be Fellowshipped that day hold them. The dark lily is symbolic of the Black Chalice – the Death Pact that binds Converts to the Congruence. Somewhere in the shadows of the Chapel behind me, Father looks on, beaming proudly from amongst a congregation of identical Chosen wearing their double-breasted suits.

“Men in those days celebrated all the dark demons of liberal fascism!” The padre hoists a hand high. “Drugs! Witchcraft! Pedophilia! Abortion!” On the last word, his hand curls into a tight fist. “Murder of the unborn. Canonized in law and celebrated as a sacrament by women who chose to bear children outside the institution of marriage! Women who sired litters of Unbelievers with multiple men, then turned to other women to satisfy their perverted lusts! It was like unto the days of Sodom, the days of Noe!”

Like unto the days of Malthus, I think. I imagine the primitive economist taking refuge in a garden shed from his various wives and litters of children to scribble his theories. I consider sharing this observation with Jeremy, but he is elsewhere now – standing with his hockey friends, his military friends. I am alone on the outside. Again.

The padre pauses meaningfully before continuing.

“And then there came the Dark Times as foretold in Revelations. The war against the Antichrist! I was a young man when Israeli jets swept over the border to bomb Tehran, igniting the Apocalypse War. I recall the disruption of the global food distribution network, the Great Hunger! The War seemed interminable before the first Saints arose to lead the fighting men of North America into the deserts. Over a million of them and a quarter-million tanks confronted the enemy at the Battle of Megiddo. They say at the height of the fighting a thousand died every half–hour. The cost was enormous! But soon after, our Crusaders rode into Jerusalem victorious. It was there among the ruins of the Dome of the Rock that Joshua received the sacrament of the Lily from the Dark Angel.”

“Blessed be the Dark Angel,” we intone obediently (– although I, from Middle-School habit, say ‘angle’ instead of ‘angel,’ prompting a hissed “quiet,boyo!” from Jeremy)

“President O’Dell was wounded in that war. He rose miraculously from his hospital bed to speak in tongues and found the group that would eventually control the government and, finally, the White House. Canada and Mexico were annexed and the Congruence was born – a fellowship into which you fortunate young men will now be joined.

“In preparation for the Final War.”

An excited whisper passes among the cadets. This was unexpected!

The padre is beaming. “Again the trumpet sounds. The brave sons of North America go forth, this time not to aid an ally but to wage war against the final abomination and render the world safe for human procreation. For I have been told by angels this morning and it shall be announced by the President himself on liNk tonight that the war to eliminate birth control from the planet has begun.”

 

7.

 

I experienced your life only in the brief glimpses I caught of you in the dojo. For as I endured the kiln of patrician life, I continued to escape to the world we shared. We never spoke. I knew nothing about you. Once, standing in the rain after class waiting for my lift, I saw a battered vehicle pull up to the curb driven by a woman who resembled you. You slipped into the passenger seat, your gi folded and tucked under your arm, and I caught the woman’s voice rising in anger at you the instant before the door closed. You sat stone-faced as the car plunged into traffic. Another time a motorcycle came, driven by an older male who also bore a slight resemblance to you. Smiling, you climbed onboard and wrapped your arms around his waist. The two of you sped away as I watched. For an instant, I was jealous until deciding the young man was probably your older brother.

You become tired and drawn the further you progressed into womanhood. It never occurred to me to question the effect the Congruence’s new laws governing women might be having upon you. One by one the other girls stopped coming to the dojo but you endured. Grew tougher. Quieter. Better. In the line-up before and after class to bow in, you were always one space ahead of me – my sempai, senior student. As I said, we never spoke. A nod upon meeting. A glance between us during practice. The occasional fierce encounter – from which I drew lessons of will that sustained me in my other life. We belt tested once per year. Occasionally, I caught up with but never passed you. You were that good.

 

6.

 

“Boyo, I’m a soldier. I fight the wars the politicians tell me to fight. I don’t ask questions.”

“But eliminating birth control will only make things worse! A child could tell you that …”

Jeremy tips his beer bottle to his lips, grinning. Our friendship has been newly resurrected since his return from boot camp. He still wears his military fatigues. “Malthus said population grows at a geometric ratio while food –”

“Grows in a linear fashion, I know. That’s the problem!”

“And war is the solution.” Jeremy spreads his hands to indicate the crowd of upper middle class kids swarming the house around us. It is Labor Day Weekend. This impromptu party at the home of a classmate whose parents are out of town has been hastily organized. “Our friends here are in competition for food resources with kids from different countries. We have to eliminate that competition and secure our way of life.”

“Maybe that’s what you should question!”

“Nut!” He scrubs my hair affectionately. “That’s your job. You’re the writer, boyo. Me? I’ll just drink my beer. And, if you’ll excuse me, cherchez les femmes.”

He slips down from the balcony rail and heads indoors, leaving me alone to brood.

Our friends here … Are these really my friends, these spoiled patrician children of the upper class? My experiences at the dojo have given me a different perspective. The kids I train with are from the lower classes. I see them growing thinner, scrawnier with lack of food. The war isn’t just against outsiders – it’s against our own people. Yet among the assembled guests, I alone am in a position to know this. As the party grows quieter and the lights dim and kids pair off for make-out sessions in the shadows, I fear for the future of our society. Finding my jacket, I move dejectedly through the darkened living room toward the door.

And that’s when I spot you.

Standing quietly in the shadows, you observe the entwined couples with a vaguely amused expression. How you ended up at a rich kids’ party is beyond me. But your recognition of me when you turn is instantaneous. Your eyes narrow but your smile widens slightly. As in the dojo, we exchange a wordless nod.

Gently, you move forward and take my wrist. Out of habit I resist your touch but you turn and speak to me with your eyes, inviting me to follow. For a moment I wonder if you intend to kiss me. We move through the shadowed house, past the writhing couples, headed for the stairs. Take them down to the basement and outside to the small backyard where we are alone.

At the edge of the lawn you kick off your sneakers, move out to the middle of the grass and wait, hands on your hips.

I shake my head and follow suit. A moment later, we stand two meters apart from each other, barefoot.

I chuckle.

You shrug and smile.

We bow to one another.

A moment later you are grasping me with your rough-nailed hands, levering me into position for a throw. I resist and we are off again, locked in combat. The closest either of us will ever come to love.

 

5.

 

I moved from adolescence into young manhood, shaped by the forces of the other world I inhabited – the world my parents controlled. It was a place of winnowing. Stripped from me gradually were all notions of humanity and fairness. I was taught to adapt. Rather than be alarmed by the growing crowds of homeless in the streets, Father traded our Excalibur Presidential for a hovercar – a Lincoln limofoil. Now instead of riding through packed streets preceded by an armed escort, we floated high above the growing ranks of homeless until they became mathematical abstractions. The ordered rows of figures in the accountant’s ledger reinforced a world where some ruled and others served. This was ordained (apparently) by God, maintained by force and ensured by the existence of for-profit prisons like the ones owned and operated by Global Confinement Solutions.   

My life ended senior year of high school. My destiny lay in university – far away from childhood, the clumsy first steps of adulthood, the foundry of will that was the dojo. And you.

Another memory …

I move across the mats to where you stand alone.

“Glenda.” It is the first time in a half decade I have spoken to you. “I’m leaving. Going to the mainland. To university.”

You gaze back at me. Watchful. But now, as in our matches, attentive for my next move. Ready to counter it.

“I wanted to thank you. You’ve taught me so much, you see. I want to tell you … I want you to know how much you’ve helped me. And I want to … be friends. And stay in touch.”

“I’m flattered,” you say coolly. “But I’m not interested that way.”

“No, Glenda … You don’t understand. I don’t want –”

Sensei calls out “seiza!” and you sprint for your place in line, leaving me alone.

I never got to tell you how your courage and determination inspired me. How having you as a mentor and opponent improved me. How the mocking light from your clay-colored eyes annoyed and shamed and moved me to be something better. You were the best friend I ever had. And I didn’t even know you.

The next day I pack up and move to the mainland.

 

4.

 

During my undergraduate program at the new Polytechnic in Surrey, I learned about convenience and control. The curriculum was heavy on Congruence teachings. I learned how science and the ordered columns of statistics had subjected humanity to its present mess. As the ranks of Crusaders filled with young men eager to fight the war on birth control (dubbed “the War for Life”), I watched and wondered how the government expected a sharp rise in the human population to improve an already crowded situation. The public rationales were always grounded in scripture and revelation. Over and against this was the data-driven business curriculum my father insisted upon as a necessary precursor to a position with his company.

“Overpopulation. Overconsumption. Over-education.” Father smiles at me. I am remembering a discussion from Christmas break during my Freshman year. “An entire civilization grasping for the golden ring only a few were ever meant to have. Why? Because their eyes have been opened – opened, I say – by progress – by the absence of those things that always kept the lower orders in check. Poverty. Disease. Ignorance.”

My sophomore year coincided with a tipping point in the War for Life.

“Make room! Make room!” Father laughs, gazing down from the great window of the fortified penthouse tower in which we now live. “Barely enough space down there to breathe, let alone live anymore.”

“Father, you always spoke of our place at the top, of our responsibility to help organize the work of those lower down …”

“What about it?”

“How are we going to help them?” I gesture toward the multitudes crowding the streets below.

Father is silent for a time.

“We’ll think of something.”

And he did.

It is during my junior year at university. Father comes over to the mainland on business and stops by for lunch. Uncharacteristically chummy, he asks to spend the afternoon with me. I tell him I have a commitment to attend a lecture by a guest speaker, Dr. Antonio Garibaldi of the University of Turin. Father says it had been a while since he’s attended a lecture and so accompanies me across the quad to the auditorium at the edge of campus. An angry crowd of hunger-crazed homeless roils beyond the chain-link fence ringing campus. Sunlight glints off the helmets of the snipers guarding the roof as we step inside.

“At the University of Turin,” Garibaldi begins, “we are beneficiaries of a government grant to explore the field of psycho-cybernetics. This fascinating discipline is still in its infancy. Yet already we are making enormous strides in the human/computer interface. Consider …” Onscreen a slide appears of a man connected to a machine by a metal cap. “Already we have been able to stimulate thought and memory centers of the brain via precision impulses from a computer. In this subject for example, we were able to induce a memory loop which caused him to re-live his sixth birthday party in almost perfect detail.”

Father stops texting his secretary and looks up.

“The precision of recall utilizing this technology is formidable.” Garibaldi summons an image of a graph with arced data points rendered in contrasting colors. “In controlled experiments, we were able to compare accuracy between individuals recalling events from memory versus those hooked to the machine. As you can see, the contrast is significant. When their experience is enhanced by mood-altering drugs it is almost as if those who undergo the treatment actually re-live events. The applications of such technology in terms of repairing damaged or incomplete memories, or for helping the police in questioning witnesses is …”

Father is texting again. I glance over and read:

  1. GARIBALDI, UNIV. OF TURIN – CONSULTANT? CHECK FEE ASAP.

 

3.

 

My final day as an employee of Global Confinement comes three years later. It is raining.

“Thomas Malthus was an Eighteenth Century economist who observed that the Earth’s capacity to furnish resources for a geometrically expanding population is limited.” Father addresses the Executive Committee of GCS from the head of the boardroom table. “With victory in sight in the Congruence’s War for Life, we confront the reality of an overburdened biosphere. The Earth was only ever meant to sustain a fraction of its current load. As the global population tops 12 billion, we face a legacy of perpetual starvation. The question becomes how to judiciously apportion diminishing resources to a geometrically-expanding human family. The answer … is ICE.

“Indefinite Confinement Experiment represents a union between our for-profit prison network and Dr. Garibaldi’s psycho-cybernetic technology. I have just returned from a meeting with President-for-Life O’Dell in Washington and he has authorized us to begin deployment of this solution among the general population. The starving masses you see in the streets will be moved to facilities where they can be held in stasis, connected to infinite memory loops that will hold them in a humane variant of suspended animation in which they can relive actual memories while consuming nutrient resources at a drastically-reduced rate. This will buy us time to consider the next step in dealing with the population problem …”

“You mean put them all in prison?” This from a senior board member.

“Warehouse the lot.” Father waves a hand.

“At least the golf courses will be freed up!”

A tide of laughter sweeps the table.

“Consuming nutrients at a vastly reduced rate?” asks another.

“Via intravenous means. Confined to chairs and drugged, they’ll take up less space Best thing for them, I tell you. Michael? Where are you –?”

“Washroom.”

Father waves me out the door.

Heedless of my safety, ashamed, I stalk the tight-packed streets – past trashcan fires and shattered doorways in which sleep the remnants of poor and middle-class families not fortunate enough to rank among the super-rich. Cast out from housing meant to keep them warm and safe, they form the great sprawling underclass of urban poor that jams the crumbling remains of once-great cities.

… and turning a corner … I see …

The dojo.

It is there. Still there. A miracle of memory and tradition, it stands. In a world where every square inch of space is fought over, where every notion of private property has been abandoned to the necessities of overpopulation, by what act of will it survives inviolate, door still intact, windows un-smashed. I cannot fathom. And lit within, a small circle of students clad in traditional uniforms sits listening as their sensei speaks to them gently. Explaining some fine point of wisdom earned by hard experience and will. The black belt around her slender waist, the weight of tradition borne gracefully on slender shoulders. And, when she turns, the mocking light in her clay-colored eyes mellowed, with age, to gentle humor …

Across the distance of years we gaze at one another. You smile at me ever so slightly. Incline your head in just the shallowest bow. Reminding me. Of the hard-won lessons we taught each another in a former time – of respect earned, of learning one’s place, of fighting with honor to bring the best inside one’s self alive.

All this in a glance. Then you turn back to your students.

Broken inside, I return home.

 

2.

 

It is a simple matter to learn the Plan. And even simpler to expose it.

The purchase of the sprawling warehouse space, the mass production of Machines, the plot to quietly return military units home from overseas to accomplish the mass round-ups and incarcerations – all these are connected by a data trail that it is child’s play for an educated mind on the inside track to uncover. I spend a week hacking mainframes, downloading video and text files, reconstructing the moves made by GCS to enslave us all. I gather and synthesize it into one single, great message and, at midnight – when the censor-bots are asleep – spawn it across a billion networks with a keystroke. The Revolution has begun.

They come for me at dawn.

 

1.

 

One final memory.

We are fifteen. Kneeling across from one another, we await sensei’s order. At his barked command, we surge forward and collide in a tangle of arms and legs, hands scrambling for purchase as we wrestle for advantage. Relying on my boy’s strength, I get on top. But it only lasts for a second. Using your girl’s agility and superior skill, you flip me off, lever me down, apply a choke. Frightened, I feel my will begin to fade. That’s when our eyes meet and you speak the only words to me you ever volunteered of your own free will.

“Keep fighting,” you whisper.

 

0.

 

I will.