I finally managed to complete my very first submission! It’s a short story for the Machine Of Death anthology, Volume 2. You can read Vol. 1 here or order it here. I know it’s not a very good attempt, but I’m still happy because it’s the first thing I’ve actually written and sent out somewhere.
Disclaimers before we begin:
- The image above is part of the Machine Of Death Anthology, released under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 license, and I have provided a link to the complete anthology. It belongs to the people at MOD and the chap who drew it.
- I am not making any money by posting here. Clearly.
- All characters and places referred to in this story are completely fictional and any similarity to any person living or otherwise, or any actual place, is purely coincidental. The use of specific languages does not imply a setting in those nations or an inclusion of those races.
If you do read the whole thing, I would greatly appreciate criticism of any sort. If it takes a life of its own and is too long for the comments box, please do email me here: epicureaninkblot (at) gmail (dot) com.
THE INVESTIGATOR special international edition (English), July 2072
Journey to the Forbidden Land
Never has the human race witnessed such a travesty as that occurring in the grand nation of Satbodhjaya. Their religious leader has made many converts around the world, but the truth about this group has now been uncovered by our correspondent. His moving documentary The Forbidden Land will air on Channels D and F throughout August (see pg. 25 for programme).
After a gruelling swim and an unpleasant trek through a sewer, I made my way to my host Wazeem’s [name changed] house. I travelled for five days hiding in various camps that had been arranged for me, and finally reached the outskirts of a dead village. The house was barely a shack, kept standing by the few bricks Wazeem had salvaged from the wrecks of other houses in the area. I took a refreshing bath in the nearby river and proceeded to slowly unpack my recording equipment from its waterproof cover. When it was time to eat the modest dinner, Wazeem kept me company, entertaining me with stories from his boyhood, before everything had changed, of course.
His cheerful demeanour put me in a good mood despite the gravity of my mission. His occasionally darkened, as if the memories suddenly sent pain spiking through him, which then gradually receded. But overall, I felt welcome, and a bit hopeful.
As we prepared to retire, I asked him, “Are you not eating as well?”
“Our country may be in ruins, but our manners are still impeccable. Athithi devo bhavah.” He turned around to sleep.
The guest is God – I understood. He had given up his day’s ration to give me a filling meal. My good mood evaporated, and I turned my thoughts instead to my task the next day.
Our world has seen many changes since the Death Machine was first introduced all those years ago. I, like most of you, was tagged at birth, and my chip carries all the government needs to know about me, including the way I will die. I am comfortable with this knowledge, but many are not, and remain susceptible to those who claim to have alternatives or escape routes.
In last year’s world summit, the leader of the new country Satbodhjaya addressed everyone in a stunning speech. Creating a world coalition, where there were no boundaries between lands, and reorganising the people of the world not by language or race but by skill – these were radical ideas that a few feared but many warmed to very quickly. The planning is in its initial stages – you can read about it in our October 2071 and March 2072 issues – but the basic government of this brave new world will be a group of people selected from all walks of life, and led by an elected representative. It is understood that Satbodhjaya’s leadership will play a close advisory role.
I woke up drenched in sweat. The afternoon heat was overpowering in the stuffy little room. I grabbed the local clothes Wazeem had left out for me and practically ran to the river. The tepid water would have to do. A dead fish bumped up against me and I swatted it away, slightly disgusted. I got out and put on my new outfit, and trekked back to the shack to layer on the charcoal to disguise my light skin. I found Wazeem, who said he had organised a small trip for us before my meeting.
We crossed the river on a depressing makeshift bridge and walked for what seemed like ages in the blistering heat, until we reached some hills. Wazeem directed me to follow him, and began climbing. It was a gentle slope with a few treacherously slippery rocks on the way, but nothing we couldn’t handle. At one point, Wazeem began crawling, and I imitated him. We came to a halt near a huge rock that Wazeem showed me how to hide behind.
I looked around. I could see a huge, walled-off area with a lot of security patrolling it. Inside, I could just make out a few long but shallow buildings and clusters of people everywhere at different machines. I took my smaller camera out and tried to focus on it all.
Wazeem leaned over and whispered, “That’s our local work camp. I go there daily from dawn to noon to make small wooden dolls. It is my family craft, one that will die with me.”
I nodded to acknowledge that I had heard him, and whispered, “Why are you allowed to stay outside?”
“Mine is not a very common skill. I am allowed to visit and I do not need to work for long hours. I am paid with minimal rations, instead of the slightly better fare the workmen receive for their hard labour. If I miss a day, I will be starved for three.”
My mouth took some time to work. Before I could reply, Wazeem turned around to leave, and I followed him assuming the subject was closed for now.
When we reached the foot of the hill, Wazeem took me in a different direction and told me to stand near a huge banyan tree.
“Walk in the direction of those yellow flowers for thirty minutes, you will come to the river. You will know how to come from there, yes?”
I nodded, and he left. A few minutes later, I heard a rustling, and Mallika [name changed] stood next to me, her clothes soaked in blood.
Swami Satbodhava rose to power remarkably quickly in the past three years owing to his entire country’s backing – he claims to pray for the souls of his people and ensure they will not be trapped in some vicious rebirth or other painful cycle because of their predicted deaths. His ministry claims to have turned the country’s economy around, and many reports of developmental measures and progress have been circulated. The entire thing seemed to good to be true, especially in such a turbulent international situation, and so we began to investigate.
We had our suspicions confirmed when various journalists sent to Satbodhjaya began going missing, or turning up dead somehow. There has been no news going in or coming out of the country, and there appeared to be very strict border control. Something unpleasant was going on, and we at The Investigator were determined to find out what.
An arduous trial-and-error process finally resulted in our establishing a means of contact and an entry/escape route – however, it was so treacherous that none were prepared to undertake the mission. My military background had already prepared me for rigorous exertion, and so I volunteered to train for seven months. Meanwhile, The Investigator continued its search for the truth. Time passed and, finally, I was ready.
As I set up my camera, I watched Mallika as she tended to her wound. She was a relatively small woman, dark skinned and dark haired, with eyes that held the gentle glint in the blackest graphite. Well, eye, really – the right one had been permanently damaged by the acid torture she had endured while being held captive. She was the leader of the rebellion in this region. A Ph.D. in Capital Markets and she was hiding in jungles covered in blood.
I started with an awkward introduction and a few questions about her background, which she brushed aside as unimportant. I asked about her wound, but she said not to worry, as she was a CHILDBIRTH case and was only four months pregnant. Disturbed, I nevertheless dived headlong into the abyss.
“How did Swami Satbodhava come to power so quickly?”
“You must understand, poverty in Satbodhjaya is very different from that in the West. You may also be living under a tyrant’s little finger, but you have a benefit system that affords free health care, a basic amount of food and protection from the elements. Here, people die of starvation and exposure. Little children of five, six years of age are sent to work. The machine has divided the people, and illiteracy, ignorance and disease are rampant.
“When the government first began testing the public, they called it the Stroj Smrti – the original Czech name, so the educated people wouldn’t suspect it was the dreaded Death Machine. It was a remarkably effective tactic, as smriti translates into ‘memory’, in our language. They never officially said anything, but the impoverished people believed it would preserve their memories forever – a technology that is available currently to the richest of the firangs, the foreigners. At least their minds would survive now, and wait for a better future to reawaken to.”
I could imagine the temptation. Escapism was always a great weakness of us mortals.
“What happened when the truth leaked out?”
“The entire nation was outraged, of course. I’m sure all those riots and assassinations were reported by your media. Even then, you can hardly imagine the level of chaos the nation was plunged into. Our country’s history is steeped in religion, to the extent that it, or its absence, is a constant factor in our lives. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism – the three main pillars of the subcontinent were at a loss to explain the existence of this Death Machine, and their considerable power had united and kept the machine from proliferating in our country. It only took a few power-hungry idiots, or perhaps corrupt fools – you can never tell these days, to dredge up enough confusion among the people to leave the various prophets squabbling over the details while they quietly passed the resolution to make death tests compulsory.
“When the truth behind the Stroj Smrti came out, the shock was all-encompassing. People refused to go to work and to obey basic laws. The entire economy came crashing down, the government was dissolved, and many coalition attempts were made and soon discarded. The nation was highly fragmented. When you have what is essentially a breakdown of civilisation, the need for a strong leader who can guide you through this difficult time becomes paramount. There were of course, many con men who tried to milk the opportunity, but Swami Satbodhava outdid them all.
“The Atmasmriti, or the consciousness of the self, is a movement at the very root of which is the concept of knowledge of your death empowering you to achieve great things, and an absence of Abhiniveśa, or the fear of death. Look at it as a juxtaposition of extreme Communism and Nietzsche-ism. It is a belief system that hinges on understanding your potential, your place in life, and working to maximise your contribution to that place, in the belief that you transcend humanism by achieving your best.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I said. I hadn’t thought it through, but it seemed like working to your best ability would in theory be a great way to rise from the ashes of a destroyed country.
Mallika frowned. “Yes, and Fascism didn’t sound too bad, either. Desperate people are prone to grasping frantically onto whatever straw can help them take a few more breaths when drowning. We were no different. The Swami rose to cult status, and soon became powerful enough to influence the tatters of parliament, to the extent that he pretty much dictates what happens in the country now. And here we are, with over half our population culled at the death camps and the other half working to fuel Atmasmriti’s international campaign.”
“How can people be killed at death camps when they have death predictions? And why?”
“The simple fact is that it was their death prediction. Suffocation, poisoning, cardiac arrest – all these were the consequences of being gassed with the deadly Whiteout. It’s just that no one put it all together until things were well under way. As for the why, it’s a simple case of applied eugenics. People who are old, weak, enemies of the state or unskilled. Undesirables.”
“Weren’t there educated people to object to this?” I was beyond outraged.
“Hunger and poverty can make even the greatest intellectual irrational, Thomas. There were a few pockets who tried to revolt; I believe they are still at it, what’s left of them. I am doing my best with the few resources we can save from our basic rations. We also have a few spies who try to supply us with weapons, but the successful ones are few and far between. Our focus right now is to try to unite the rebels into a single rebellion, and combine our efforts to contact the world outside as well as rescue as many as we can from the work camps.
“Talking to you right now brings it all back for me, and I can’t help but think that what we are doing here is futile. But you are our only hope, Thomas, you must get this beyond the wall and tell your people the truth behind the situation here. We are trying, we will never stop trying, but our shadows are much longer than yours.”
My interview with Mallika ended soon after that. I felt paralysed by this burden of knowledge, this incredible responsibility I now had to make it out of the country and to share this horror with the world. I slowly made my way back to Wazeem’s depressing little shack.
A horrendous stench attacked me as I neared the river. Decomposing, diseased bodies, some half eaten by presumably the dead creatures that floated with them – it looked like some camp was dumping its unholy waste. For fear of my equipment drowning, I couldn’t just run across the rocks, so I had to endure over ten minutes of carefully stepping on the slippery rock-bridge and trying (and failing) to avoid the bodies now bunching up and toppling across the crossing. I retched till my stomach strangled itself empty, and dry heaved some more as I attempted to shoot the scene.
I arrived shell-shocked at Wazeem’s. The shack was empty – he was probably waiting at the food queue for his rations. I couldn’t bring myself to watch my recordings just yet and instead collapsed on the little cot, into a sickly stupor.
I was tempted to stay behind and look around for more stories, but my sense of responsibility and survival prevailed – I’m not sure which drove me more, though. I made my way through to the border, once again relying on the rebel support chain Mallika had alerted regarding my journey. This was the hardest challenge – the only unguarded area was a 1.5 mile stretch of barren land that spilled onto the Bay of Bengal.
I had contacted an independent rebel group that had taken control of a small sewer that led under the stretch into the sea. The route had never been used as they could never get the equipment (nor had they the bodily strength) needed to swim far enough to surface and hope to survive, and no one from the outside had been able to truly penetrate the wall and contact the rebellion. Besides, the various combination studies I had invested in assured me there was no way PROSTATE CANCER would result in my death by drowning, in its current stage – I only had to fear capture, and I was prepared enough to escape that.
After five hours of steady swimming, I saw the Prima Ballerina [name changed], anchored to let the rich [retracted] on it watch a whale family enjoying itself. My contact had left the anchor room unlocked, so I could climb inside and get a safe ride to Australia as the reclusive Ralph Eichmann (I had been in a rather ironic mood as I had made the arrangements). I felt a profound sense of relief as I dropped onto the floor, despite being aware of the various obstacles ahead of me. The adrenaline was ebbing, leaving in its place sheer exhaustion, but I somehow made it to my new quarters. And then, I slept.
(Thomas Cochran, ref. 2043/CAU/PROSCAN62)