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Fiction

The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves

 

A PEOPLE'S FUTURE OF THE UNITED STATES

This story also appears in the anthology A PEOPLE'S FUTURE OF THE UNITED STATES, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams. Available now from One World.

I can create any scenario I want for Dante, any story, any setting—anything. I have total control over his universe. Today he inhabits a grand mansion. The design is mostly mid-century modern, with just a hint of gothic whimsy. Each room is crafted to maximize luxury and pleasure, pleasure that can exist beyond the laws governing the material universe. It is a miracle, a place of wonder and dreams, a place where anything may happen.

“Yo homie, I want the D!” Dante yells.

He and Dahlia are naked in the boudoir. I set up a very romantic scene for them. A river of fine champagne lazily flows around a bed seated upon a rose-petal island, all beneath sky lit by candles. These are all simple signifiers, but sometimes simplicity is the best. Dante entered from the Frasier zone, expecting his normal bedroom, only to find this delicious tapestry and Dahlia waiting for him, resplendent in elegant finery, lacy lingerie, and very sexual high heels. He was soon denuded, and so was she. Esquivel is playing, and Dahlia performs an erotic dance I choreographed based on Rita Hayworth’s Dance of the Seven Veils in 1953’s Salome. The rest writes itself. (Sex.)

Yet Dante only laughs scornfully, filled with pure amusement at his own irreverence. He shall get no D this day or any other, yet still his spiteful pleasure knows no end. “That D! You know what I’m talking ’bout!”

(D is a reference to a human man’s penis, which I presume he wants to have intercourse with or around.)

“Stop it,” I say into the microphone, louder than I intend. I look around. I don’t think anyone noticed. My workstation is in a cubicle on the main floor of the facility. I am surrounded by other Adjustment Engineers, each one working with his or her own client via the Synapse.

The Synapse is a miracle of modern engineering. The Synapse allows people to reach their full potential. The Synapse will free us from ourselves.

I give him a little buzz. Just a little so he knows I’m not playing games with him. He reacts absurdly, shaking, screaming, wriggling on the floor like a child. I know not to be fooled by these theatrics. We are doing this to help. I’m not a bad person, I promise. I want to help Dante. I love him (agape). I only want what’s best for him. I have never hurt him. All I have ever done is help him be the best version of himself that he can be. Or at least, I have tried.

“That sucked,” he says after he has recovered. “I mean, it was a powerful sensation, but I need some romance before the big climax, chief. What, is this your first time torturing anybody?”

“Stop it,” I say.

He smiles so big and so wide, like he knows he’s won whatever game he’s playing. “Maybe some spanking? Is that your thing? Some spanks, maybe some spit play? I feel like we could really have some fun together if you loosened up.”

Just a little buzz. Just one more. It doesn’t hurt as much as it seems. I’m not a bad person.

I can fix him. I can make him love her.

• • • •

“It’s been six months,” says Program Director Murphy.

“I know,” I say.

Program Director Murphy is a small, grandmotherly woman in her fifties. She is kind and good. She is my boss. I trained with her for a year before beginning this job. I know her well. This job has been my dream since I was a child. This is a good job. I am doing good work. I am a good person.

“What’s the problem?”

“He’s a difficult subject.”

“You’ve made no progress at all.”

“He’s a very difficult subject.”

“He’s your first, isn’t that right?”

Program Director Murphy’s office is large, blank, and circular. The corners where the walls meet the ceiling and floor are rounded, giving the impression of an infinite void, at the center of which is a desk for her and a chair for me. I am more afraid than I ought to be. She’s just my boss. My heart shouldn’t beat like this, and I shouldn’t feel like my head is swelling up like a balloon, like it’s growing to fill up all the empty space around me.

“Yes. My very first.”

A field of holotext floats in front of her face. The green light reflects on her skin, giving her the appearance of a small, grandmotherly woman in her fifties. She is kind and good. She is my boss. I know her well. I trained with her for a year before beginning this job.

“It says here that you spent a week making him watch Godard movies on repeat?”

“Yes,” I say. “They’re very romantic. Have you seen Pierrot le Fou? It literally tells you everything you need to know about heterosexual intercourse. I mean, it’s like a metaphor—the guy explodes at the end.”

“Do you know why we assigned you to this case, Daniel?”

“Not really, ma’am.”

“You and your subject share a love for twentieth-century ephemera, a sentimentality.”

“Of course.”

“But you’re too sentimental. Spare the rod, spoil the child. You need to be firmer. We’re doing this for his own good.”

This is a good job. I am doing good work. I am a good person.

“Yes.”

“Be firmer. They can take more than you think.”

“Okay, ma’am. Whatever you say.”

“There will be negative consequences if you can’t produce results.”

“Yes, ma’am. I understand. You can count on me.”

• • • •

I eat lunch in the cafeteria with my friend Xavier every day. He started here around the same time as me. I would enjoy fraternizing with him in the evenings as well, but we are assigned to different dormitories. But our lunch schedule lines up perfectly every day, so we can at least hang out then.

“I am starting to really fucking hate this fucking piece of shit,” he says.

Like me, he is having trouble with his subject.

“Today I made Hollie into a cheerleader and Javi into a quarterback, and then they were in the shower together. But then Javi just complained. I want go home; I want to read a book; I’m bored. He said he played fútbol in school, not football. It was so annoying.”

Xavier is small and . . . elegantly constructed. I haven’t measured his features, of course, but I strongly feel the golden ratio is in play. His hair is dark and shiny, and when I see him in the corner of my eye, it flows down gracefully to his shoulders, though in reality it is cut cleanly above the ear. He speaks with an aristocratic Spanish accent, and he stumbles when swearing, as if he cannot quite find the translation to encapsulate his anger. I feel as though I have known him for a long time, and I think that he is probably my best friend.

“They’re monsters,” I say. “If this were easy, we wouldn’t be here. It’s our job.”

Dora sits down at our table. She also started around the same time as us. She is a very beautiful woman. We are sort of friends, and sort of enemies. Also, I think she may be my girlfriend.

“You losers whining again?” she asks.

“We don’t whine,” I say.

“What do you call it, then?”

“A strategy session,” says Xavier.

She chuckles. “Nerds. You just have to bear down. Get into their minds. Suck them into the illusion. Daniel, did you end up doing that thing with the hundred cakes?”

“Five hundred, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I told you it wouldn’t work. Today, Ike proposed to Izzy and she said yes. It’s going great. You just gotta know how these people think. You have to manipulate them. Give them what they think they want. That’s how you get what you want.”

She continues to explicate her methods, which largely entail being great and naturally knowing how to do it. I appreciate her company, despite the name-calling. It is a little strange that she might be my girlfriend, but she is an amusing person. I enjoy it when she is around. This, I believe, is the essence of romance: enjoying it when a person of the opposite sex is around. This is why we live and fight. But she gets up quickly, and I realize that she had no intention of eating with us, rather that she is going from table to table in order to brag.

“I’ll see you losers later.”

“Bye,” says Xavier.

“I love you,” I say without thinking.

For a moment, she stares at me blankly, as if waiting for her thoughts to catch up with her, then she nods. “I love you, too.”

After she leaves, Xavier says, “Why don’t we actually have a strategy session? Really get into it? Later. After work.”

He speaks softly, purrs almost. Program Director Murphy is nearby, standing by herself on either side of the room, a small, grandmotherly woman in her fifties. She would not approve of socialization outside of the sanctioned areas. We could get in trouble. I should say no. All of my instincts are telling me to say no. Any other day, I would say no. But today, I don’t know. I have to get better at this, and I can trust Xavier. I feel as though I have known him for a long time, and I think that he is probably my best friend.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

“Just the two of us.”

• • • •

We are drawn to the aesthetics of heterosexualism, both in theory and praxis. There is a simple elegance to it, a mathematical harmony. The key fits into the lock, and in doing so the key is complete, the lock is complete, the door is open. Meaning is created by the dialectic of form and function, and meaning is the hammer with which we carve our lives from χάος and ἄπειρον, the formless infinite. Desire seeks only to replicate itself, but meaning seeks completion, and in completion we find ourselves.

Dante is lost, and he doesn’t even know it. That’s why he was sent here. Not because he was gay. There’s nothing wrong with being gay; everyone knows that. The Institute loves gay people. We’re their truest allies, their biggest fans. But the lifestyle is hard. Some people aren’t as tolerant as us. The indignities, the exclusion. It’s terrible. And then there are the health issues. The diseases, the physical strain of unnatural relations. These people were everywhere, all around us, suffering, practically screaming for help. Something had to be done. This is why the Institute was created. Dante is among the first subjects. I am going to give him a better life, a normal life.

This is a good job. I am doing good work. I am a good person.

I wipe out all of Dante’s memories of Dahlia and of the various trials he has undergone in the Synapse. We need a fresh start, a new coat of paint. He always figures out that he is in a simulated reality eventually, though he is unable to put together that he is, in fact, not the real Dante, just a digital copy scanned from the original’s mind. How could he, though? We all think of ourselves as “real,” even when everything around us seems false. The real Dante is asleep somewhere in the facility, probably in the basement or something. We’ll wake him up when Synapse Dante has learned his lesson. The digital will be merged with the analog, the ghost will re-enter the machine, and the whole will be healed. The real Dante will be good and free of trouble and strife.

All I have to do is get everything right. I’ve a great scenario in mind, a real adventure. Dahlia just needs a few tweaks. She’s a fairly basic AI—a puppet, really. I modeled her after Rita Hayworth. Rita Hayworth is the best woman. She was good at dancing, and she made Gilda. What more could a red-blooded American man ask for? Ginger Rogers? Boring. Myrna Loy? Too snobby. No, I know what cool guys like: Rita Hayworth.

Sometimes I think about Lena Horne or Josephine Baker, but then I don’t think of them. You know what I mean? When you think about something but you don’t think about it. There’s a word for that. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Do you ever feel like there’s something staring you right in the face but you can’t see it? No, that’s not it. No, it’s more like you know something’s there, but you don’t want to look. A monster under the bed or Bluebeard’s secret chamber. You can hear it, smell it, taste it, but everything is fine as long as you don’t look. But if you do look, you get eaten.

This is all prelude to the fact that today I make them act out the plot of Vertigo. Just the romantic part at the beginning, before it gets weird and horny, when it’s only a detective and a lady who’s maybe a ghost falling in love, and instead of the part where shit gets real at the bell tower, they get married.

This goes very poorly. Hurtful words are said that can never be taken back, no matter whose memories are erased.

• • • •

Xavier and I meet on the roof of Dormitory Epsilon. It wasn’t as hard as I thought dodging Program Director Murphy. She waits by all the exits at night, and also she patrols the halls. (We are allowed to leave. We are not prisoners. We just have to sign out first.) But the service hallway leading to the roof is near my room, close enough that I can slip in and out without being seen.

You can see the whole city up here, all light and color, impossible to make out any one particular building in the nether distance. I feel like I’m floating, like in a dream where you know if you look down you’ll fall, so I keep my head up and imagine I’m balancing on the edge of the sky.

“Give them something to want,” he says. “So you can take it away.”

There is a slight chill in the air, just enough that I can feel the heat of Xavier’s breath on my cheek as he whispers the secrets of pain.

“I think it’s all about signifiers. Images and connections. That’s how you get through to people.”

“But is it real?”

He smells like fresh sweat and cinnamon.

“Nothing’s real. That’s the secret of living. All we have is beauty and images and connections.”

“Have you ever kissed someone?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Me neither. It’s no big deal. Everybody forgets. But I wonder how we can teach people to love if we’ve never even kissed anyone.”

His chest goes up and down, up and down, swelling and shrinking, and it’s like his breath is the only air in the world.

“Maybe that’s our problem,” I say.

We kiss. Just as an experiment. He tastes like oysters and ozone, and I get lost a little in the moment. There are so many sensations at once, all of them good, and I try to focus on each one individually, but it’s like trying to count raindrops on your face, and I am unable to focus, and my mind clouds with touch and connection.

Kissing is very nice, I decide.

• • • •

My conversations with Xavier lead to the creation of a character I call Dante Jr. Dante Jr. is an irrepressible scamp between the ages of six and ten. I put some memories in Dante’s head of Dante Jr.’s birth, his first steps, his first day of school, et cetera. More clichés, I know, but they take a lot better than the memories of Dahlia. Those Dante Sr. rejects pretty quickly, thinks them through and says things don’t add up and freaks out and I have to reset him. But Dante Jr. is sticky, as long as there’s not too much Dahlia in the mix. I guess Dante was always meant to be a father. All the more reason to help him out, right? Dante only really remembers Dante Jr. when they are in the same room. Otherwise, he exists only on the periphery of his mind, so I can still focus on my primary goal of creating love. Dante Jr. is seasoning, some nice flavor for the dish I’m preparing. He comes in, does some little-kid stuff, then Dante does some dad stuff, and we all have a good time.

Honestly, I’m surprised by how well it works. Dante still figures out it’s a simulation every couple days if I’m not vigilant about erasing failed experiments, but he gets along so much better with Dahlia when Dante Jr. is in the room, and when he does figure it out, he assumes that Dante Jr. (and therefore Dahlia) is trapped in the simulation with him. They’re finally starting to bond. It’s beautiful. I think I’m finally getting good at this job.

Today they all made a cake together as a family. Just one. Not quite as many as I would like (five hundred), but it’s a start.

• • • •

Xavier and I have been meeting on the roof every night. We don’t talk about the kiss, but we talk about everything else. It’s really nice. It feels like listening to a new album from a band you already love, familiar and comforting but still new and exciting.

“I used to want to be a baseball player,” I say. “When I was a little kid.”

He smiles at me as though I were the first person to ever make another person smile, and I can’t help but return the expression. We sit next to each other on the edge of the roof. It’s nice.

“I can’t imagine you playing baseball,” he says.

“I was very bad, but I always thought I would become good someday. Like without any work or anything. Just one day I would be great at it, a star. Same with living life, really. I always thought I would just become normal one day.”

“I think you’re great as you are now.”

My hand brushes against his. It was not intentional, but not unpleasant. But he pulls his away as if bitten by a snake.

“Sorry,” I say.

“No, no, it’s not you.” He looks down and is quiet for a while before gathering his thoughts. “I had a meeting with Program Director Murphy today. She was not pleased with my progress.”

Program Director Murphy is a small, grandmotherly woman in her fifties. She is kind and good. She is my boss. I know her well. I trained with her for a year before beginning this job.

“And?”

“She put me in the machine. She grabbed me and held me down, and she was at the console. Just for a minute. I was still in her office, but I was in the machine, too. She said she was showing me how to teach. She . . . did something to my hand. It felt like it was on fire. Or something worse. I can’t really describe it. Just pain. She was whispering in my ear, said that I could do this to Javi, that I could do worse, and that Javi would learn his lesson then.”

The Synapse is a miracle of modern engineering. The Synapse allows people to reach their full potential. The Synapse will free us from ourselves.

“Are you okay?”

“Something is wrong, Daniel. Something is very wrong. The dots are starting to disconnect. The other day, I was trying to say something in Spanish, but I couldn’t. I know I used to speak Spanish, but I can’t anymore. I remember my parents speaking English, my childhood friends and relatives, everybody, but that can’t be. We lived in Morelia. My mom taught literature at the university. She used to read me poetry every night. She liked Paz and Zepeda. Mom. Mom. That doesn’t sound right. It’s not right. It’s not right.”

“It’s no big deal. Everybody forgets.”

“Just be careful. Don’t let her do anything to you. Do what you’re supposed to.”

I notice he has tears in his eyes, and I think he is starting to cry, but I don’t say anything, because I am polite.

• • • •

“I’m in lofe with you,” says Dahlia.

A simple typo, but Dante is enraged. He screams, cries, punches the ground, makes a production out of it. Just because I typed one word wrong. It’s a mistake on my part, I admit it, but I don’t think this response is warranted. I had a great thing going, and now I’ll have to start over.

He thought he was free. I crafted this scenario where I intentionally let him figure out it was a simulation, then made him think he could escape from it with Dahlia and Dante Jr. There were some puzzles to solve, some ducts to crawl through, vats of blue goo connected to supercomputers—it was a whole production. He and his family had just emerged from a mysterious underground facility to see their first “real” sunrise when Dahlia accidentally let slip the “lofe” thing. He put it together pretty quick after that.

“Chill,” I say. “I mean, please calm yourself.”

“You’re a monster!” he yells.

“This isn’t so bad. I think we learned a lot for next time.”

“Next time? Fuck you! I’m going to kill you when I get out of here.”

“You’re not real, dog. None of this is.”

“You’re never going to beat me. I’m never gonna do what you want. You fucking suck.”

And now I’m angry. Who’s this guy to talk shit to me? Who’s this guy at all? I’m trying to help him. I think back to Xavier, the fear in his voice as he described the fire in his hand. That’s not gonna happen to me, no. It can’t. I need to teach this guy a lesson.

Dante Jr. is standing next to his “father,” watching and waiting.

I delete him.

“He was pretend, too,” I say. “Everything is pretend but you and me.”

He doesn’t take it very well. He howls and cries. And he doesn’t have any little jokes for me for the first time ever.

I win.

Still, I’m a little sad. Dante Jr. was kinda like my son, too. Me and Xavier made him together. Me and Xavier. Wouldn’t it be funny if me and Javi could be dads? Wouldn’t it be so funny? Like a joke. Like a really good joke. Ha ha ha, I would laugh, after I told the joke to a friend. This is good, though, right? This is what I wanted. Now Dante knows he can’t have it both ways. He can’t have a family and be queer at the same time. This is what I was supposed to teach him. I thought I would like this more. It hurts to see him like this. But this job has been my dream since I was a child. This is a good job. I am doing good work. I am a good person.

There’s something I’m not seeing, and I don’t know what.

• • • •

I come across Dora on the way to lunch, sitting alone in a corner beneath the stairs. She doesn’t look like she normally does. She looks smaller somehow, and empty, like a mannequin wearing a Dora suit. She is clutching something in her hand that I can’t quite make out.

“Hey, are you okay?” I ask.

“No,” she says.

“What’s wrong?”

“Izzy. I had to reset her. It was all fucked up.”

“I thought everything was going good.”

“It was a grift. She was scamming me. Just pretending. Giving me what I wanted.” She laughs hard. “It was a good one.”

“Why’s it matter? We all have to delete stuff from time to time. It’s part of the job.”

“I don’t know. It felt like cutting off my own hand.”

We sit in silence for a moment, and I point at the object in her hand. “What’s that?”

She holds up a tiny holo projector. She turns it on, and it shows an image of her and another woman sitting next to one another. The woman has short hair and a kind smile. She looks familiar. Maybe I’ve seen her around the facility. But I can’t place her. Was she here before? We are allowed to leave. We are not prisoners. We just have to sign out first.

“I found this in my room.”

“Who’s that?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”

It’s no big deal. Everybody forgets.

“Are you okay?”

“I just thought I had it. I had everything. This job has been my dream since I was a child. This is a good job. I’m doing good work. I’m a good person. But I’m not good at this at all. I’m like you. A loser.”

I want to tell her that it’s not her fault, that our job is difficult, that we have to try our best to surmount the odds. But instead I say, “It’s like they’re setting us up to fail.”

And then I think about Dante, how much I hate him. I hate him for not doing what he’s supposed to do. I hate him for the way he talks to me. I hate him for being such a fucking queer.

Fuck.

Fuck.

Dante.

Dante.

“Daniel? What’s wrong?” she asks.

“I looked,” I say, and I stand. “And now I think I can see the monster under the bed.”

• • • •

He keeps remembering. I don’t know why. I refreshed him seven times. He’s fine for a little bit, then he starts to remember. I try to treat him right, give him as much television as he wants. But there is nothing in the world that can give him succor.

“Where is he?” he says, crying.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Where am I?” he says.

“In a facility. To fix you. Make you normal.”

“What normal? What does that mean?”

“Normal people hate themselves.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Daniel. And you’re Dante. Right?”

“I don’t know a Daniel.”

“Neither do I.”

• • • •

“I’m proud of you, Daniel. You’ve made real improvements in your work,” Program Director Murphy, a small, grandmotherly woman in her fifties, says. “You’re beginning to show some real promise.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Your subject is beginning to learn.”

“Yes.”

“You know, I like you. I really do. I’m quite fond of the twentieth century myself. Just like you.”

She called me in. Said she wanted to congratulate me on my recent performance. I have never been more afraid in my entire life. She’s behind this, I know she is. She’s the one doing this to me, to us; I just have to be cool. It’s fine. I can leave. We are allowed to leave. We are not prisoners.

“That’s cool.”

“I still don’t care for your sentimental streak. You’re too wrapped up in the glitz and glamour. Hollywood hogwash. What I like is the people, the society.”

“Of course.”

“People used to know how to act. People knew what was right, and what was wrong, and if they did wrong, they at least had the decency to respect your religion, your morals, your basic sense of taste.”

“Cool.”

“It’s gotten worse and worse. You probably don’t even remember what it used to be like. Paradise. And now it’s chaos.”

“That does sound bad.”

“It is. That’s why we made this institute. That’s why we hired you. To figure out how to make things right. You’re doing so much for the cause, Daniel.”

“Cool. Cool cool cool.”

She stands up and walks over to me, places her hand on my shoulder and smiles warmly.

“I think he figured it out,” Program Director Murphy says.

“Are you sure?” asks Program Director Murphy, from her desk.

“He keeps saying cool. He’s not looking you in the eye. That’s what he does when he’s trying to not give it away. He’s so obvious,” she says from across the room.

Program Director Murphy groans. “Again? I thought you said we had it this time, Pam?”

Program Director Murphy shrugs.

My head hurts. I can see it, but I can’t see it. There’s more than one Program Director Murphy, but Program Director Murphy is a small, grandmotherly woman in her fifties. It doesn’t make sense. But I can see it. I try to stand up, but Program Director Murphy stops me, holds me down. There’s too many of her.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

Program Director Murphy slaps the back of my head. “Shut up.”

“Don’t do that,” says Program Director Murphy. “He can’t help it.”

Program Director Murphy walks over to me and kneels so that we are face-to-face. “I’m sorry, Daniel. Really. I really thought we had it this time.”

“What?”

“I guess you all just need to be pruned from time to time. Your friend Xavier starts asking questions and sneaking around. Isadora starts to freak out over her lost love. And you, Mr. Five Hundred Cakes, you figure it out. What a world we live in.”

“You want us to fail on purpose. You want us to hate ourselves. Why?”

“We’re trying to help you, Dante. We want people to accept you, like we do. We love people like you. People with your . . . proclivities.”

“Homos,” says Program Director Murphy as she types at the Synapse console.

Program Director Murphy rolls her eyes. “Thanks, Jeff. No. We understand. We just want you to be happy. We’re giving you a very important gift, Dante. You should treasure it. Sweet, simple shame. You used to suffer from a pitiful lack of shame before you came here. Sassy and smug and out and proud and so forth. Other people aren’t like me, Dante. They don’t appreciate it. They don’t like it being rubbed in their face. They don’t like being forced to accept you. Don’t worry. You’ll still be yourself after this. Most of our graduates are. We’ve never been able to really fix you all. But at least you’ll know how to keep it to yourself. Maybe you’ll settle down, find a nice girl, have some kids, satisfy your urges in secret. Or at the very least, you can be the bachelor uncle or the lonely oddball neighbor. Like in one of your movies. All you need is beautiful, wonderful shame. We love you, Dante. I promise.”

“Is this . . . is this real?”

Program Director Murphy all laugh.

“Don’t worry, Dante. You’re the original. Meat is as easy to work with as ones and zeroes. It’s all the same technique, really.”

“Let me go!” I scream. “We are allowed to leave. We’re not prisoners. We just have to sign out first.”

Program Director Murphy stands up and nods. “Okay. I think we only need a few tweaks. He definitely needs to socialize more. All he does is sit alone and think, think, think. We need to make him more compatible with Dora.”

“I think he needs more bro time. Like him and Xavier. They could be friends.”

“Xavier always asks him to go sneaking around at night. He always says no, and I want to keep it that way. They’re close enough as it is. Work friends, that’s all. You know their . . . history.”

“Please don’t do this,” I say.

“Don’t worry, Dante,” Program Director Murphy says. “Just remember your triggers, and you’ll be okay. Everybody forgets. It’s no big deal.”

• • • •

Today, Dante and Dahlia have to prepare and eat five hundred cakes. It’s a bonding exercise for the two of them. The cakes are white on the outside and pink on the inside (a sexual metaphor) and, when prepared according to the instructions, are delicious, perfect, pure, and without flaw or deviance: absolute cake. Dante ought to love the cake as much as the cake loves him. He ought to be happy and eat his delicious cakes with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. Cake is an elaboration of bread, and bread is life and love and beauty. We may recall Neruda’s poetic image of the leavened dough rounding and rising, mirroring the swelling of a mother’s womb. Or we may recall the mysticism of Dali’s breadbaskets, the numinous hunger evoked by the loaf still warm from the hearth. We desire to expand, to procreate, to be large, and to contain multitudes. This is normal.

• • • •

I eat lunch in the cafeteria with my friend Xavier most days. He started here around the same time as me. I would enjoy fraternizing with him in the evenings as well, but we are assigned to different dormitories. But our lunch schedule lines up perfectly every day, so we can at least hang out then.

“Where have you been?” he asks.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

He turns his head from side to side and comes close, whispering, “Our, um, strategy sessions. You haven’t come. Is something wrong?”

“I would enjoy fraternizing with you in the evenings as well, but we are assigned to different dormitories.”

“Okay. What?”

Dora sits down at our table. She also started around the same time as us. She is a very beautiful woman. We are sort of friends, and sort of enemies. Also, I think she may be my girlfriend.

“Hey, losers,” she says.

“Dora. Have you noticed anything strange about Daniel lately?”

“The other day he told me he saw the monster under the bed, and then he just walked away without saying goodbye or ending the conversation. It was weird.”

“I don’t remember that,” I say.

“It happened,” says Dora. “I remember because I was having a significant emotional moment.”

“It’s no big deal. Everybody forgets,” I say.

“He’s got a point,” says Dora.

“Yes. Everybody forgets,” he says. He looks sad. I don’t know why. He should get a girlfriend like me. That will solve his problems.

“So anyway,” Dora says, “I think I figured out a way to get Izzy to finally do what I want without being weird. It’s sort of a meta thing where I—”

Javi slams his fist on the table. “No. No. I don’t want to forget. I want to remember. I will remember.”

“Remember what?” I ask.

He starts pronouncing t. Over and over. Tapping his tongue on the top of his palate. Again and again. T— t— t— t—. He goes on like that for minutes. Tears start to well up in his eyes. Tears. Is that it? T— t— tears. No. He looks like he’s having a nervous breakdown.

“Te. Te. Te amo. Daniel, te amo.”

I stare at him as he crawls across the table, knocking his food to the ground. Before I can do anything, he kisses me. He tastes like oysters and ozone, and I get lost a little in the moment. I feel something inside me, something strong, and I can feel something breaking.

“Thank you,” I say, and I kiss him.

It’s like going home after a long time away. You see all the familiar landmarks and signposts, and you have enough distance that you really see them, and you don’t just ignore them, and you just connect with yourself, all the past versions of you, all at once, seeing and remembering and feeling.

A scream shatters the moment. Program Director Murphy is on the ground next to us. Next to her is Program Director Murphy. Izzy is standing above them with an empty trash can above her head.

“There’s two of them?” she says. “That doesn’t make sense.”

There is gasping and yelling from the other engineers in the cafeteria. Panic begins to set in. I stand on the table and try to explain. I don’t know how much I remember and how much I don’t remember, but I do my best.

“They tried to make us into monsters, but we’re not. They wanted us to hurt ourselves, but we don’t have to. We have love. And also, just, like, fucking.”

Xavier—no, Javi—laughs and grips my hand. I notice other hands being held, shoulders rubbed, arms lovingly wrapped, wet eyes, hopeful smiles. We weren’t the only ones. We were never the only ones. I just couldn’t see it.

The Program Director Murphy serving lunch has disappeared, and a group of Program Director Murphys are at the door, preparing to storm in.

“We have to fight,” I say. “We can win. I know it. They don’t care about anything but themselves, but for us, this is everything. We are not prisoners. My name is Dante. Remember.”

The engineers stand. We arm ourselves with whatever we can. Garbage, trays, cutlery, whatever can hurt. And I try to think of a good movie where something like this happens, and I can’t, because this is real.

“Fucking riot!” screams Izzy. She throws the trash can into a window, and the shattered glass catches the light and sparkles for a second like the sunrise.

And so we riot.

Violet Allen

Violet Allen is a writer based in Chicago, Illinois. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Liminal Stories, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Resist: Tales from a Future Worth Fighting Against, A People’s Future of the United States, and elsewhere. She is currently working very hard every day on her debut novel and definitely has more than ten pages written, is not lying to her agent about having more than ten pages written and does not spend most of her time listening to podcasts, and everything is totally cool, I promise. She can be reached on Twitter at @blipstress.