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The air conditioner howls, it’s only twenty-five celsius outside but it needs to be eighteen here, on the edge between comfort and freezing. Can’t relax, be comfortable, let my mind wander, be in discomfort. My pills knock me out for eight hours at a stretch but in the greyness hides danger. The numbers, I must crunch the numbers. Equations swim on the page before me, I must concentrate, derive and calculate to engage my logic centers, shut out the emotion, the noise. My models are ready when I tire of this, my word games next to them when I tire of the other.
Oh god her picture’s still here why did I leave it? The crack opens, I know she’s outside locked away from me, me from her. Numbers, concentrate damnit, concentrate! The crack widens and it floods me, I feel it all the suicides, violence, pain and heartache all too real. I slide off the chair onto carpet, the bottle spills from shaking hands as I swallow three, four, how many, jesus god when will it end?
Dappled warm sunlight fell on Inzali Ariba as she pushed another seedling into the thick mud, one of thousands before and thousands to come. The coolness of the paddy caressed her calves, the gentle wash back and forth a reminder of the other village women to either side intent on finishing to return to children, cooking, husbands. The rhythm of the day led her to daydreaming, imagining herself in school, out with friends, fine clothes and food, the normal yearnings of any fourteen-year-old girl. Inzali knew that for her these things would be out of reach, her village strangers in a familiar land, unwanted and unwelcome in a country they had lived in for a thousand years. Maybe for her children or theirs it would be, but for her the day, the sun, the daydreams were enough.
The crunch of tires on dirt betrayed two trucks moving to the village, one stopping on the ridge above the field. A dozen soldiers jumped out, scrambling down into the paddy guns waving, shouting. Separated into two groups Inzali found herself with the younger girls, the older women and her mother herded together in tears. Three soldiers singled her out, dragging her up the slope into the jungle, laughing prodding each other, stopping a few yards in grabbing at her, clutching, propping her up against a tree.
“What’s your name bitch?” the one nearest leered at her, face nearly touching. Shaking she opened her mouth, pointed and shook her head.
“You can’t talk?” Another laughed. She nodded, crying.
“Just as well, we’ve got better things you can do with your mouth,” unbuckling his trousers to the sounds of distant rifle fire.
They threw her in the back of the truck with four others bruised, torn, sobbing.
“Don’t know what you’re crying for, think yourself lucky we’re keeping you,” as he slammed the tailgate shut and jumped up. “Maybe you’d like to join the others?” Laughing, the truck moving down the road past rose colored paddy fields and their strange plantings.
Feet on desk I pulled my mind back to the screens and feeds. I’d woken tired from broken sleep, tense and stressed and I just couldn’t shake it. It wasn’t me, I’d always strongly reflected other’s feelings, but more some office colleagues who were out of sorts. I could see the pair of them looking frayed, haggard. Jeannie was closest, I stood up and walked over. I was barely two meters from her when she looked at me, scowled and wagged her finger. I shrugged, headed across to the other side to Brenda.
“Hey Brenda, ready for a coffee?” She and I went back ages, old friends we’d started here together. She gave me a look that would’ve frozen Hades.
“Only if I can drown your ass in it!” she growled through clenched teeth then, almost as if she only just heard the words, jerked back. “Hell Denis I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —”
“It’s okay, I just thought you could use a break, you look like, ah, a bit edgy.”
“Yeah yeah, guess I am.” She frowned. “Just seem to be overly aggressive, nearly bit Ted’s head off this morning.”
“You’re not the only one,” looking at Jeannie beating a manic tattoo with her fingers.
“Hmm. Look at this,” jabbing her screen. The data was familiar, we’d been assigned the crims and cranks section of the paper and rotated regularly. For the past few months she’d taken the crime stats and police reports, I got the psychics, paranormals and whatever didn’t fit elsewhere basket. I was tired of looking into Madame Zelda’s crystal balls and was looking forward to switching back.
“Common and aggravated assault ticking upwards.” Not earth shattering but interesting.
Brenda leant forward and split the table by gender. “Now what do you see?”
It all looked normal up to a month ago but since then the stats went crazy. Male on male assaults had fallen, male on female dropping out of sight. On the other hand female initiated assaults had skyrocketed, but only female on male; female on female had ceased utterly. “Interesting, what’s behind it?”
Brenda was staring at the screen, her mouse in a death grip. “Maybe you’re just getting a taste of your own medicine.” It wasn’t said in anger, just dispassionate, cold, disturbing. I stepped slowly back.
“Ah, maybe a rain check on that coffee yeah?”
She waved dismissively. “Whatever.”
It was a nightmare that wouldn’t end, why didn’t Allah in his mercy end it, take the pain, the torture as she had begged him? Three, then four, then one, shared as meat or a toy abused and raped again and again relentlessly, viscously, Inzali hated them, hated herself, cursed the life that had led her here. She hadn’t seen any of her villagers since the truck, since being dragged from room to room, place to place. She shuddered from the cold water, tried to wash the stain and filth from her but could not. Alone for the first time in weeks she curled up, no tears left, praying for deliverance that she knew would not come, for a hiding place denied her even in fitful sleep.
She looked shattered, vacant eyed, mouth a harsh scar. One hand gripped the steering wheel white knuckled, the other a bare wire. The eyes refocused, hardened and stared straight at him with disgust, loathing, menace. Tossing her head back she drove the bare wire into the roof. The screen flared white, black, then switched to another CCTV point. The van’s sides puckered in as if to take breath then disappeared in a searing orange–white globe, hurling cars and people outwards, upwards. The glass walled office block over the car park distorted, quivered, then collapsed in a shower of dust, flame and crystal shards. Hot streamed from the paper’s net tie-in I’d replayed it over and over watching TATA’s regional headquarters and a thousand people instantly obliterated. It was three hours old, all over the networks, and here I was stuck with Delores herself, holder of the Nancy Reagan Chair for Paranormal Research at Cal State for what had been our regular interview.
I closed the laptop. “What did you say?”
“I asked if you could feel it, the oppression. Do you?” She looked over the top of her glasses. “How have you been feeling around your wife, colleagues, me?”
I shifted uneasily. I didn’t like being interviewed, especially by someone who claimed to be telepathic. “Honestly, a little twitchy, I must be tired, overworked.”
“Hmm. Tell me, the bombing, how many of those have you seen? I’ll tell you, none, not by well-adjusted middle-class women. She’s the first African-American suicide bomber isn’t she?”
“First I know of, in this country at least.”
“She won’t be the last. And the other things, the assaults, crime and the rest, it’s unusual but you have no idea.”
“Of what?” She was argumentative, a typical academic, but it made her fortnightly column that much more interesting.
“The pattern. It’s only women, the increasing violence, rising anger, ‘edginess’ as you put it. But not all, not yet. You remember May’s column?”
Couldn’t forget it. ‘Everyone’s Telepathic’ generated a tweet storm that still bubbled along.
“Well something’s out there bouncing across the more attuned women, something unsettling. It’s anti-male, it’s growing, gaining strength, driving behaviors and attitudes. The ones who aren’t as attuned are just getting a taste. She,” pointing to the closed laptop “was probably at the upper end like me but probably didn’t know it. Even now it’s a struggle not to get my gun out the bottom drawer and put a bullet between your eyes.”
She smiled, mockingly. “Not much of a struggle, but it’s there. As for you, I’ve told you before you’ve got the ability, a strong ability, and it’s getting to you. With us the anger points outwards, yours points inwards, sensitizes you to what’s going on.”
I didn’t believe her before and I wasn’t going to start now. I stood up, made my goodbyes and headed for the door. She pulled me up.
“Listen, I know you’re skeptical but take some advice. Don’t do anything to upset any woman, stay in the background and stay quiet for a bit. Try and detach your emotions too, it might help you settle. Hopefully it will all just blow over.”
At least this time when they’d finished they’d thrown her in with others, with food. She found herself facing seven haunted faces, all clinging together huddled in one corner. One face was familiar, Malala, daughter of a village elder. They held tight for ages, shared suffering easing the burden if not the pain. Malala cradled Inzali’s face in both hands, gently, close.
“My poor sister, what a thing has happened to us. No-one will come, no-one will save. It is true, we are all alone and have none to turn to. Listen to me, listen carefully,” drawing her closer “to survive now is to win. You know they will come again and again for us?”
“It is only our bodies they defile, not our minds, not our hearts. When they come, when they do, hide in here,” squeezing her thumbs gently on Inzali’s head “go into here and stay, make your safe place and stay, no-one can get you there.”
Inzali nearly smiled, sorrowful, clutching Malala.
“If only you could speak my sister, if only you could.” The key in the lock grated. “Remember, go here, hide in here, no-one can own you, go to your safe place.”
Colonel Li Cxi Cuin ground her cigarette on the tabletop, looked at her unit. The all women cream of the People’s Liberation Army’s airborne divisions, it was an act of war pure and simple. And she was leading it.
“All right, it’s now just the doing comrades.” Two dozen pairs of eyes stared back, not with the cold steel of professionals but the burning of fanatics. Each wore black rings screaming of lack of sleep, each one haunted and driven by a common waking nightmare. She stabbed the screen behind her.
“Right here, the Myanmar / Bangladesh border, eight of them held by one unit. Confirm.”
Tzi Wen Yu nodded brusquely. Unlike their degenerate western counterparts they recognized real intel, real data no matter how gained. The insignias, names and markings were easily traced. Their female PLA counterparts had helped, bulldozed and threatened past cowering males. “Ingress here, HALO jump here, extraction at this point. We go in, take them out and bring them back.” In the darkness their transport waited, engines idling, cargo bay ramp open.
Colonel Li stood up, the room instantly at attention. “Mount up, our sisters are waiting.”
I just kept hitting him, straddling the bastard flat on the pavement, my hands screaming from smashing bone and flesh. I could feel him inside me, his mates laughing as they held me down, my turn now bastard payback bastard payback, your smashed teeth and broken bones not enough, not nearly enough. A brick to my right caught my eye. I grabbed it in my blood caked hand holding it ready, cocked above his head my wedding ring glistening … wedding ring? Pappa hadn’t given me yet, the planting needs to be … planting? I shook my head, grimaced, shook it again. What the hell, who am I? It all vanished from my mind, I looked down to the man I was killing, that small barely conscious brown-skinned stranger. I dropped the brick, staggered and fell shaking against a wall. Denis, Denis, what the hell is this, you’ve near killed him. One minute I stopped to buy a carton of milk, next I’ve dragged him out of the shop, down the alley tearing the life out of him. Voices reached me from around the corner, I moved away into deeper shadows, away from the man now on his knees. The voices turned the corner, transformed into a small group of young girls laughing, joking.
They saw him, one arm raised, begging for help. They ran to him, stood around him. He looked up at a young blonde. She took his hand gently in hers, smiling then gripping tightly sneered, yelled and sent her heel grinding into his eye socket as he fell back. The ring closed, fists and feet in flurries, sickening wet snaps then shots and silence. I turned, fled, didn’t look back just ran, ran home, bolted the door and hid.
Inzali Ariba watched, detached, the men abusing her body. Malala had opened the door, she could hide, the pain and anger and hatred and humiliation soaked away, sent to Allah in his mercy while his daughter’s body suffered. Her safe place in his arms, she would survive to yet be the pious daughter as her pain and terror flooded out, flooded away.
“I think it’s a telaesthesiac episode here,” Delores spat barely suppressed hatred down the line. I’d locked myself away in my study, barring the door and windows. I could hear my wife pacing up and down, day and night, dragging my hunting knife along the hallway click clack click clunk across the door, the jamb, the shiplap walls. She loved me and I her, but I knew I was dead if I poked my nose out.
“It’s a transmitting telepath, we’re getting what she’s feeling. It’s getting stronger, clearer, can’t block it. It’s not just the telepaths now, all women are getting it.”
“How does it stop?”
“When you stop abusing us! Sorry, sorry, it’s hard to control. We can’t stop, can’t block it. We see everything she sees, she’s in a jungle somewhere and the men, oh god they look like you! I can see them, I can feel what she feels its … its … sorry, look, I can’t talk to you, I’m tracing the call I’m hunting you down, turn off your machine —”
I tore the cabling from the machine, smashing my mobile against the wall until it was a pile of shattered plastic. Shaking uncontrollably I couldn’t move, caught in the deluge of emotion from without and within, locked into the corner of the room in the dark. I clutched a paper weight in one hand, cowering, hoping like hell my wife didn’t come in, didn’t try, didn’t make me …
Colonel Li smiled, flicked the safety off and waved two fingers forwards. They’d made it in unobserved, on time, on target. It was stronger now, she could feel them calling her. Twenty, maybe thirty minutes.
Inzali watched herself thrown again into the room, used and discarded. Her body was torn and damaged but she, her mind and spirit, was untouched. She rejoined, still and calm sitting next to Malala. Malala was twisted, bent, cigarette burns across her chest and abdomen coupled to cuts and bruises across her back. Her wrists and ankles bled, the ropes having cut hard, the smell of putrefaction wafting up. She looked up, lacking even the strength to raise her hands.
“My sister, we feel you, your pain as ours. I’m sorry, I don’t think I have much left.”
Inzali took Malala’s head in her hands. She could not tell Malala how, but she could guide her. She squeezed gently, then left herself, looking down at the two of them. Malala tilted her head back, frightened as her body remained still. Inzali reached out, took her by the hand, then lifted her from herself.
“My sister, a safe place for all. Share yourself with me, I with you.” And in that instant the pain and suffering of both women met, shared, and filtered away. Each was still their own, each alone but now shared openly, fully. “When they come again, as they must, we have our refuge …”
Delores woke up, sat bolt upright. Two transmitters? Yes, now two, and she could feel them. How? Telaesthesia contagion? How? Both together both in the jungle, both … she could see them, the first and the next, the names, Inzali, Malala, the suffering, the pain. She reached out.
“… and we will not abandon the others.” Malala smiled. They looked down on the small group of women below them, reached out with their minds, Inzali the stronger leading, encouraging Malala until the six were with them as one, together, shared.
Malala felt it first, presences just on the edge, open and seeking, near and far. “Inzali, can you feel them?”
“Clearly, yes, many. The more of us the more I can feel.” Once one alone, now one part of eight, more than she could have imagined. She felt one strong close by, maybe two kilometers away with others, more across the mountains, over the oceans. In the far distance strong, calling, one above all others. All sisters, all being linked and drawn. “They have heard us faintly, some come to save, all are women … no, there are a few men, a few.”
“We should try to reach them all.”
“Yes, our sisters only, we must.” and the eight reached out to the clear and the strong, then as they joined to the weaker and weaker until, in the briefest of instants every woman was linked, shared, knowing, feeling and seeing. In it all, unnoticed, one other was pulled in, enfolded and shared unwillingly.
Colonel Li didn’t break step or hesitate, one mind or millions, single or communal to her it was simply greater impetus to the task, her unit now truly one. She reached out to Inzali, Malala, comforting, assuring deliverance soon, safety soon.
Delores reached out, caught herself, forced herself back to the place she was, the person she was. Too clearly she understood the latency released from Inzali when shared, compounded then transmitted around the world. She felt lighter, happy, balanced and for the first time in years the knot of pain and fear had left. Left for where? She forced her objectivity, tried to find it, somewhere in the linking, the sharing of memory and experience it must … and it was, outside them all but contained, soaked away and held to be kept away until or if it could be sent back. To who?
“To all those who have given it, to those who did not help us or helped them.” Inzali clear, confident, powerful. “As I have given the burden to Allah in his mercy so my sisters, and as he has taken ours he has lifted yours. And it will be returned to those who sent it.”
Delores felt around, saw the package contained, nothing touching it, alone but for one in its midst into which it was unfolding, copying itself, downloading everything into its psyche. Allah? Inzali’s construct? She concentrated, recoiled, connected. Denis.
It was crushing me, tearing at me and I couldn’t get rid of it, soaking in piece by piece by action by hurt all of it done by me to me for me on me with me. Act by act every pain and humiliation visited on woman by man, mockery to slavery and beyond, unfiltered raw loading on me and always in my name done to me screaming Denis, Denis, Denis …
“Denis! Denis! Denis hear me!”
“Delores? Delores, oh god I can hear him Delores how could I do it to you Delores —”
“Denis! Listen to me, listen!”
“Denis, listen. Pay attention to me, to my voice, only me. Open your eyes, don’t feel, don’t pay attention to anything but me. Denis? Denis!”
“Yes, yes, listen to you, yes.”
“Avoid emotion, concentrate on logic, numbers, reason. Stay awake Denis listen to me, do not sleep. Denis, what do you do?”
“Awake, listen, logic, numbers.”
“Primes Denis, what are the first three prime numbers?”
“Ahhh, one, three, ah ah five, five.”
“Stay with me, what are their factorials? I’m coming now, soon ...”
Colonel Li stood stock still, one meter behind him. Bare chested, sweat soaked pants, cigarette in one hand Inzali’s tormentor had no inkling of her presence. She fingered the blade, she could end him in any number of ways, slow or quick, the choice was hers. But not today. Generations ago her forebear was Emperor Qin Er Shi’s seer, the ability passing undiluted and unnoticed down the female line until awakened by Inzali. She saw the package, saw Delores’ understanding, and knew the time had come. The price of her career had been high; it was time to give them their own, to send it back. She felt her unit smile; Inzali, Malala and their village sisters agree; the linked world consciousness accept. She reached out, took the package and fully connected every man to it undiluted, unconstrained. For each one the entirety was theirs.
He fell to the ground, choking sobs caught in primal fear, pain, self-loathing horror, clutching his knees to his chest as were all Inzali’s tormentors, and as here every man across the world. Colonel Li called for the airlift, stepping carefully over the impotent form at her feet. Yet a while would they suffer, until she decided they’d had enough. After release then justice, true justice and always the package hovering, threatening, Damocles’ sword to control.
With no system to hide behind, no shield or cover and their lives on clear display to all, many cheated justice by their own hand. To the package pain upon pain was added, pain from the suicides, pain from knowing what a son, brother or lover truly were, from what was seen but not understood, what was understood but not acted upon. All this from they who would bear it to await sharing with those who inflicted it.
Except I. Drawn in by Inzali and Malala, fused by Colonel Li’s connection I am caught, one with it never to be broken. They have tried, have drained and exhausted themselves for nothing. I cannot end it, to take my life will only add to the pains it holds and perhaps – if Delores is right – even collapse it back upon us all.
My life, such as it is, is to suffer. I stand as a totem, Cassandra, a life exiled in absolute solitude, disciple to logic and reason, sleeping dreamless sleep. When will it end?
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