Tiers on Campus

“Tier One achieved,” sent via text recurred on his Facebook Messenger and every other account like a fun-house echo.

“No!” Tito shrieked, slipping his hand from beneath his iPhone OS 32. Clattering to the floor, the screen cracked.

“You have twenty-four hours to select a sense to give up,” a clinical voice soothed from the undamaged phone speaker.

“F-you!” With balled fists and his face turning fire-engine red, Tito stamped on the offensive device as if there were a Goliath bird-eating tarantula clinging to his pant leg.

Racing through the dorm hallway, Tito shouted at the sightless to clear the way. He shoved past the deaf and knocked down a damn Humanoid Life Form, AI’s with newly installed senses. They are as clumsy as first-time ice skaters. Slamming through the door to the outside, Tito ran. “If you do not reply to this message within the next twenty-three hours and fifty-eight minutes,” the voice came from his wristband.

With wild eyes and a triple-time heartbeat, Tito clawed at it, “a selection will be made for you according to the Articles of Pact 571.” Tearing the band away, he flung it.

At his car, Tito leaned on his knees while catching his breath. He considered making a run for Mexico. He’d heard they had distant relatives there. As soon as the thought hatched, Tito extinguished it. Mexico had installed vaporizing shields along its border, eliminating the illegal American problem in plumes of acerbic steam.

He’d done OK with the Tiers till now. By using antiquated devices, he maintained below average web connect times. If students weren’t diligent, their implant chips automatically connected, skyrocketing their plug-in times, putting them in danger of Tier violations.

Tito’s pestering of Abby in Chem class accrued no cost. But to transition her from gal pal to girlfriend, he needed to use message flirting.

Online communications from his siblings increased when their mother’s bone cancer condition progressed from stage three to four. They had smartphones but refused to use the phone feature, even after reminders that they were adding to his Tier count.

Carmila: Remember your visit with Mama this week.
Vasola: She’s hanging on to watch you walk, Toto! You’re making us all proud.
Dean: Me and the girls have you covered till you graduate, Teets. Don’t worry about the loan on mom’s house.  You’ll pay us back once you have a good job.
Paula: I know it’s hard to see her this way, Tito. You’ll have regrets if you keep avoiding her.

Unlike his siblings, Mama had Tito fitted with a paper-thin implant chip when he was four; it would be the family’s entrance ticket to the world of affluence.

“I’ve got this!” Tito assured himself. “Tier One is minor; no one has to know.”

When a Tier status was claimed, nine out of ten times smell was the first to go. Classmates fearless enough to admit it claimed its absence was a simple way to trim tonnage.

Three years had passed since Pact 571 went into effect: it became a formula for societal success. Mother-borns were to focus on cultural interactions while AI’s would concentrate on data analysis and efficient system-wide management. Last year, Mother-born gray areas of gaming and messaging had been resolved. Because AI’s monitored and controlled the net, overuse of web services was deemed a trespass.

AI’s insatiable curiosity of all things Mother-born was to be curbed too. They were banned from making copulation simulations and restricted from hacking communications. Tiered trespass consequences were installed for encroachments on both sides.

If AI’s broke it, Mother-borns would gain disassembly or programming rights. Depending on the AI model, this could equate to several year’s salaries. If Mother-borns broke the Pact, AI’s were entitled to harvest senses.

photo credit: Steve Jurvetson flickr

Tito had seen a set of six-foot-tall robot dogs marching onto campus with a course set for Randy Packard. Students scattered like cockroaches exposed to light at their approach.  Already bereft of taste, smell, and sight, Randy’s terrified screams filled the quad when the dogs collected Tier Four.

Tito had yet to meet Mother-born with benefits from a Pact trespass.

20:19

Tito arrived at Mama’s empty house; its silence pressed upon him like a bloodless Reaper hand seeking his heart. When he imagined his mother’s cinnamon rolls tasting like egg cartons, Tito made a face. A text message from Paula appeared on the refrigerator, ‘At Dr.s’. Hm. Soon. She can’t wait to see you.’

Tito rummaged through the ample selection of casserole dishes in cold storage. Mounding a plate with various forms of neighborly support, Tito binged. He was finishing his last morsel when Paula arrived, pushing Mama in a wheelchair. This was new. Tito’s stomach clenched around the food glob, threatening to flip it like an omelet.

Mama’s over bright, medicated gaze locked onto her youngest. A gaping mouth was now her smile, spittle glistening at the corners. Tito noticed another missing tooth.  He had difficulty reconciling the strong mother of his youth with this fragile remnant of a woman, reaching for a hug. Holding his breath, Tito stepped into her embrace. His touch was as gentle as if she were spun of glass filaments.

She’d done everything for him, but in this, Mama failed. As her resistance to the forces eating her insides gave way, Mama’s attention collapsed upon itself. A fleeting hug was all she could manage.

Tito’s problems lay squarely upon his own shoulders, he’d already lost his sounding board and most empathetic supporter.

22:02

Tito lay on his bed watching Abby’s texts roll up the wall.

Hey Tit, where U been?
Y so quiet?
Starting to worry.
Want to play Forza 2nite?
Don’t make me wait too long. 😉

“Stop,” Tito responded. His word bubble appeared below hers. A dull ache settled over him as he calculated how long it would take to reach Tier Two. “On my way,” he said.

The common room in Abby’s dorm was decorated in cheerful blues and oranges. Plush carpet resembled grass and real pine trees in planter boxes lent the space a fresh, outdoorsy fragrance. Tito’s chest expanded as Abby approached. She flashed a forty-kilowatt smile and held her arms wide, “Tito!”

Crushing her against him, Tito lifted her off her feet, spinning them around. Setting her down, their eyes locked. Tito’s need to kiss her was tangible. He was a boulder, falling from a cliff, about to explode on impact. He resisted the urge.

“I made popcorn,” Abby covered his blunder with a peck on his cheek.

Tito followed her to the kitchen, he was a satellite caught in her magnetic orbit. While Abby’s back was to him, he tugged at a piece of her loose, shoulder-length hair. This was how they first met. When she didn’t respond, he tugged again, using more force.  Tito frowned. “Abby?”

Abby’s hair remained twined in his fingers. Her eyes darted to his hand, then back to his face. Her skin drained of color. Being in the Tiers was tantamount to social leprosy. “I gave up touch,” her strained whisper confirmed.

Tito gulped. Reaching around Abby, he plucked a popcorn kernel from the bowl. Placing it in his mouth, he closed his eyes, savoring the buttery, salty flavors as it melted. When it disappeared, he leaned in to kiss the luscious lips that would never know the texture of his.

23:10

Pulling away, Tito addressed a cabinet. “Pact 571,” a text box appeared, typing as he spoke, “Tier One selection; taste.”

Tito wondered if the dogs would show up exactly at the 24th hour and if the Humanoid Life Form receiving his Tier One would develop cravings for cinnamon rolls.

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Quaker Ladies Rubble; What Might Have Been for Phineas Gage

 

Estimated reading time 4 minutes.

Excerpt from Phases of Gage; After the Accident Years, a novella based on the life of Phineas Gage.
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1852

Phineas is aboard the Witch of the Wave with his parents and sister, Phoebe. The ship is beginning to move through Boston Harbor.  It will be traveling down the eastern seacoast to Chagres. From there, the family will cross the isthmus to Panama City and board a steamer bound for San Francisco.

As familiar territory fades from view, Phineas is feeling queasy. He reminisces about what he’s left behind.
_____________________________________________________

Everything changed that day, four years ago, when I became a freak, The Man with his Brains Blown Out.

When I think about Caroline, my insides get agitated. In happier times, we dreamed of our children. I hadn’t realized how fortunate I was when I was just a man, with a girl, working for our future.

Longing and loss shoot through my heart, searing me. I blink back tears. Viewing undulating ocean swells through distorted vision doesn’t help my mood or my wily guts!

I remember a Sunday afternoon like it is perfectly preserved in an unblemished piece of golden-tinged amber. We wandered off by ourselves, walking over the hill to a peaceful meadow, out of sight of the picnic and games. Caroline discovered a patch of Quaker Ladies flowers, tiny things with four white petals and a sunny center. We set to work picking some when she asks me how many children I think we’ll have.

“Coming from a large family,” I said, “I think I’d like not so many that the middle ones are forgotten in the pack.”

She giggled saying she agreed. I chose a flower, twirling it by its stem, sniffing its delicate perfume, “What would you name our first born?” I wanted to know. I reached over, plucking the pins from her hair, watching it tumble over her shoulders. She looks like she used to when she was a girl. Her smile sets my heart a flutter.

Her eyes sparkle, “I think I should like to name her, Susan.”

“Susan!” I was surprised. “You are wishing for a girl first?”

“Yes, silly, girls are a great help around the home. She will watch the other little ones when I am laboring with the next.”

“Come here,” I said. She leaned toward me. I embed the flower stem in her loose hair so it stays in place. “Here’s to the first,” I said, kissing her. For every child we named, I added a flower, following it with a kiss. We’d be breeding like rabbits if the Quaker Ladies were a prediction of our fate!

Before we started back, a gnat flew into my eye— the left one. The hurt that the tiny bug caused was out of proportion to its size. Caroline sat me down. While pulling my lower lid away, she dabbed with a corner of her handkerchief.

“For such a big, handsome man you yowl and complain like a baby,” she observed with good humor.

When she’d gotten the critter out, she wiped at the tears running down my face, kissing the injured eye, then the other one for good measure. I had to thank her for her kind and gentle services… It was difficult to stop thanking her! But a gentleman doesn’t keep pestering a lady once she’s called a halt.

Having Caroline to myself for that space of time, I was itching to finish saving for our farm and for us to be married! The need for money was what had sent me up Cavendish way to work on the railroad.

A chilly wind crawling beneath my jacket brings me back to my place and time. Looking over the Atlantic waters, my mind conjures up my beloved. She stands beside me, her elbows on the deck rail. She leans into the wind. Her eyes are closed but she is wearing a broad smile. “Every day is a new adventure!” she exclaims.

Turning toward me, her long, loose hair, behaves like fine autumn grass overcome by a dust devil. The Quaker Lady blossoms that I placed there come away, pelting my face with such force that they sting like blasting rubble.

My stomach is tight and sour, jumpy. Saliva, like hot water condensing along the sides of a glass pot, seeps into my mouth, filling the crevices below my tongue.

It occurs to me, with finality, that I will never be a father, now. That dream is as dead as my relationship with Caroline.

I hug the rail, opening my mouth, letting my guts erupt.

_____________________________________________________

One of the ‘great’ medical curiosities of all time.

At twenty-five, Phineas’s life changed the instant an iron rod
(like a crowbar, but without the hooked end)
shot through his head.

Now and Then

They pulled back at the same time. Lips puckered, hearts racing and eyes wide with surprise and desire.

He was the first to speak as he picked up a dreadlock that had fallen over her face. Rolling the dense length of hair between his fingers, he gently tucked it back into the nest that surrounded her head, “Lulu,” he laughed uneasily, “I’m sorry — I wasn’t planning that.”now & then

When Mark made a move to step away, Lulu held him in place. Humor sparkled in her deep brown eyes, “I’m surprised Mark. I thought we were just friends…but now…” She reached up to trace the red, fern-like pattern that marked his pale skin from his ear down his neck.

As he leaned back in to capture her mouth, Lulu pulled him to her forcefully. A flash of passion flared between them. Their hands clutched at one another. She moaned wordlessly.

As an inner voice of constraint grew more insistent, Mark squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself pull away. They took a moment to let their labored breathing return to normal.

Lulu placed a hand on his cheek imploring him to look into her eyes, “I have missed you so much! I won’t let you go, Mark! I can’t ever let you go….”

Mark’s eyebrows shot up. A shiver traveled down the length of his spine. “Why did you say that?”

“I don’t know.” Lulu smiled.

Three hundred and sixteen years earlier…

Rain pelted him as he ran through the night. Mud sucked at his leather boots. He ran down the narrow path. “Mary! Mary where are you?” he screamed.

Luke knew that she’d gone down to the river to wash clothes with some of the other women from town. lulu lukeLightening that lit up the dark sky was followed by a deafening crack and roll of thunder. The brief illumination revealed no signs of life, movement, or of his new wife.

They’d been married only three days earlier. Blissful days of joyful lovemaking filled his mind and heart. He couldn’t believe that she was finally his and he could love her whenever he wanted. He wished they were in their warm bed right now rather than sloshing through the wet. He would scold her for scaring him …once he found her. “Mary Darling! Can you hear me?” Another flash of light and rumble of thunder. The river finally came into view.

When he first went searching for her, asking about her here and there—her friends had told him how happy she was to be washing his clothes. Even as it started to rain, Mary had wanted to remain at the river so that she could finish her task.

“Mary!” he called out in relief as he spotted her struggling with a heavy basket. Another flash of light revealed her smile when she spotted him running toward her.

“Oh good! You can help me carry this,” her voice reached him faintly.

Luke released his breath in relief as he closed the distance between them. With a blinding flash of light that came and went faster than the human eye could track, his life path took a sharp, unexpected turn.

Mary stood frozen in place. “No!” he screamed with panic at the edges of his voice. Smoke or steam, he didn’t know which, rose up from around her hair.

Her eyes locked onto his as she began to topple.

“Noooo!” he yelled catching her in is arms, sinking down into the mud on his knees. Frantically he ran his hands over her, “Mary! Mary! Are you alright?”

A faint, raspy whisper escaped, “Lu….” before her body went limp.

“No! no ..no…no..no. This can’t be happening.” Mark repeated as he held her to him rocking back and forth.

She grew cold and stiff in his arms before he released her. Another flash of light illuminated his dead wife, her head rolled back, in his arms. An angry red, fern-like burn mark spread from her ear down her neck. “I won’t let you go Mary! I can’t ever let you go….”

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Story Prompt:  reddit writing prompt – a birthmark on your body is a result of you dying violently in a previous life. How did you die?

Messenger

Isobel’s youngest, and most beloved child, Agatha, had been chosen by the Order of Mystics to learn their ways at the tender age of four. When the girl had turned twelve, she’d been chosen again—this time, to receive the highest honor bestowed upon a member of their tribe; to deliver messages from their people to the Gods. Isobel wondered if the distinction was given because of a childhood rivalry between herself and the sister of the tribal leader.Messinger

For one year prior to Agatha’s Messenger Ceremony, Isobel’s family would receive tributes of food and service by every member of the community.  As the time for the sacrifice grew near, Isobel became increasingly anxious. She felt the eyes of her people on her every move. At night, she’d whisper desperately to her husband that they must do something to stop this.

Angry with her, he’d grown tired of repeating the same responses, “It is the will of the people. The Gods punishment would be severe. It is blasphemy to speak those words,” he turned away.

The thought of leaving her home and all that she knew frightened Isobel. But it terrified her even more to consider what would become of her if she continued to live among the tribe after they had killed the most beautiful thing that she had created—Agatha.

Isobel had constructed a plan. It began with a fire. Even the most devoted can be bribed for the right price.

“The Gods may not smite you,” the masked female said in a gravelly voice. It came to Isobel through a heavy cloud of cloying, sweet smoke. “However, the people will take their vengeance upon every member of your bloodline,” the oracle continued. “Their screams will echo into the heavens and their tortured deaths will be a blight upon your soul.”

Tilting her chin down, and holding mask away from her face the oracle spat into a bowl of liquid that contained several strands of Isobel’s hair. She tossed it into the fire pit between them. Another cloud of scented smoke stung Isobel’s eyes. She coughed and gagged while crawling out of the sacred, dark, womb-like space.

Isobel hurried back to her modest dwelling without uttering a single word.

Inside the smoky hut, Agatha removed her mask. It was forbidden to make personal statements when seekers came for visions and soothsaying. In this instance, she had broken her oath.

The heavy thrum of drum beats filled the air as Isobel and her family, dressed and decorated in their finest, walked the path that led to the steps of the altar. They stood together as the priest addressed the gathering. Agatha slipped a trembling hand into her mother’s as they stood, proud, shoulder to shoulder.

Shouts from the far end of the village reached the assemblage. For a moment all fell into a confused silence. As panic began to clutch the crowd, Isobel’s hand tightened on Agatha’s. Their eyes met and held. “Run!” yelled the mother to her daughter.

——
Story Prompt – WriteOn weekend challenge – in 500 words or less write a story about a messenger.