DP FICTION #91B: “A Stitch in Time, a Thousand Cuts” by Murtaza Mohsin

Content note (click for details) Content note: Indirect Reference to Death, Mass Violence, Collective Punishment, Imprisonment

Ali never got used to the things they asked for. All those mismatched items left behind in those desperate moments. But there would be only one item per family so he advised them to choose wisely.

Usually, it was something small. Grandmother’s favorite azure prayer beads strung on a nail on the high shelf reserved for religious texts, a lost doll the kids had just rediscovered or a lucky tie for those rarest of job interviews. Sometimes it became fiercely practical, like heart medicine, the keys to an old car that had miraculously eluded being pummeled by those angry whistling bombs or useless saving certificates and property deeds.

In the beginning, he had used his gift as a child does. To try to wrong the little rights. To copy the answers of the smartest girl in class (beautiful flowy handwriting) or knowing just when to intercept sweaty Ahmed’s long pass and score the winning goal for his beleaguered football team.

But he could keep on cheating till eternity and nothing would change as long as the Occupation Housing Authority (OHA) controlled the territory. He would never get a job because there were none for anybody below the age of 40, no marriage before 50 or jumping the endless queue to the overcrowded beach that opened once a month on a random Friday. Instead, he had to wait as everyone else did in the Zone.

The Zone, casbah of the damned, the darkness of its pitted alleyways punctuated by nightflares. But it was the only world Ali had ever known and it was getting smaller every year or so, whittled away by the regular mini-invasions to root out the “miscreants”’ amongst them, houses demolished for archaeological/religious significance, OHA administrator rights, etc.

Ali’s vocation emerged out of the mad contours of life in the Zone provided he was close enough in the first place. Every so often, a roof knocker bomb would politely announce the randomized destruction of a designated apartment tower and let off red-hearted smoke, a warning for everyone in the Zone to behave.

Soon the evacuees of the destroyed building would start piling up around him with their requests and Ali would have to go to work. With desperate smiles, they would plead for him to go back (literally and temporally) to save the precious belongings they had abandoned in the terror of their flight.

Those ten precious, splendid minutes were all Ali ever had for his neighbors. It was the farthest extent he could stretch his being backwards in time before the doomed building was levelled by the damn OHA. By horrible synchronicity, this period aligned perfectly with the gap between the OHA’s warning and bombing.

All Ali asked for was they pay him something, anything they could spare from lives that had just tumbled into a pile of rubble. It all went to his parents, every last dinar. For a long time, he wondered if this hopping through time in this narrowest of spaces was his deepest destiny. As if he had been picked by fate expressly for this doomed place.

The smoke and dust seemed endless the day Burraq Heights was bombed for the third time by the OHA. Each time the Burraq’s stubborn owner had rebuilt his apartment block a storey lower hoping and praying to escape scrutiny.

Ali had lurched into the condemned building, managed all he could. His old Red Crescent canvas bag and repurposed combat vest bulged to the brim with lost and found. There was only one failed recovery, a silver ring rubbed against a saint’s shrine for luck. Exhaling slowly, he happily ran a hand through his scant hair, feeling relatively fresh and counting his money. It was a good day for recovery.

All this time, the loudspeakers emblazoned with the sleek logo of the OHA reminding them the good things in their lives:

1. Security (The lowest crime rate in years! So many criminals rounded up, gone without a trace.)

2. Well-settled refugees (Generation 6? Who was counting anymore?)

3. Environment-friendly roads made from plastic waste (Potholes a convenient size for a child to curl up and sleep inside.)

4. Graceful apartment towers lined with bright red cladding (those highly flammable borders lit up like a Roman candle when the bombs hit.)

The sun-drenched boulevard was so bright that he only saw the scrawny man when he was nearly on top of him. “You, lionheart, may all my generations bless you. Abu Zaman, please help me. My mother!” He was pointing in the distance, frame wracked by sobbing.

Abu Zaman, divine shadow, the snake which eats its own tail. They have a lot of titles for him. The dripping effusiveness of the prayers suggested he had no payment to offer. Ali tried to appear noncommittal. “Where in the Burraq, what was left behind? There’s nothing I can do about that now. It’s too late.”

The man’s seamed face strained as his finger pointed. Ali imagined his body toppling over into a hill of dust. “No, not in the Burraq,” he moaned, “she’s inside…our house.” Ali finally perceived the small pile of rocks, cragged like a cairn.

The Occupation had done a double tap, the man’s house bombed with only the slightest of time gaps with the Burraq. It was a rarity but who could divine the logic behind the biopolitical policies of the OHA?

The South Wind slashed Ali’s face with grit. He attuned himself, face like ageless stone. “Time of impact?” He said sharply.

“Four minute, two minutes ago,” the dazed son replied.

Not good. Barely enough. He would have three minutes with any margin at most.

He brought out his battered Zippo lighter in a flash and thumbed it sharply. He held his talisman aloft against fate, a passport to the dark void and leaned into his backward step. A blinking light steadied. And suddenly he was there and running past the rusty-railed veranda of the simple stone house.

He had been expecting a comatose woman, barely responsive. Instead, there was a mess inside. The barefooted little woman, wailing and weeping, had her wizened back to him. He called to her lightly and she wheeled around like an angry cat, her crystal eyes flashing out at him from under her turquoise shawl. He knew her from his childhood before his time travel had left a scar in place of every memory, each face a blur. Her name eluded him. She used to set out precious water for birds, always smiling at children and giving them creamy treats when they broke their life’s first fast in Ramadan.

But she seemed feral now, insensitive to all but the tide of blood and rage welling inside her. “My key, where is it? My son, my damned son, has hidden it. I’m sure of it.”

She moaned gently, “I couldn’t stop looking. He wants me to forget, curse him,” before she abruptly fell silent.

Patient Ali had waited for her to finish, didn’t doubt that she came from a long noble line and held fast to the rope like a desperate man groping in the dark. “Sayidaa,” he coaxed.

“Your son has sent me. Your face… It glows with the light of your lineage – surely you will sit on God’s right hand. Please come with me. The bomb is about to fall, I have seen it with my own eye.”

“So what?” she snapped, “We are all living on borrowed time, you most of all.” She stood still, her weathered upper lip curling stubbornly as she started her search again. Her densely veined hands shook slightly, knobbled by arthritis that the OHA didn’t permit to be treated. She was clawing at phantoms when he was trying to save her from annihilation. He hated her, this moth dancing around the flame. He felt exasperated and shouted. “Why can’t we just leave it? There’s nothing anymore. We lost.”

She was unfazed and flared at him. “So we will always be the wretched of the earth, always apologetic for our existence? Doesn’t our nation have a place under the sun? You should know better, Abu Zaman, you help so many.” Her voice rolled over him, a lullaby for resistance and revolt. “Son, we can still fight against the dark if we keep our heart and faith.”

He tried to tell her. The nation was dead. A thousand cuts, indignities, lies, and denials later, the Zone was all that remained. The vulture’s leavings. How does faith fare the sword? Fight how?

Her voice fell to the reedy whisper of a conspirator, “Can’t you just keep jumping? Ten minutes, again and again? Go back to when it all started and stop them in the very beginning. You could save our homeland.”

He wanted to laugh at the delusional hag. That wasn’t how it worked, how could it? He could barely manage the two jumps, one after the other, he had just made and now she wanted Ali stretched into infinity, sliced into tiny fragments.

He sucked in air, his chest red and heaving. Even his breathing sounded weak and strange to him. Within him the space between things moved, a subtle shift of infinite dimensions. An expanse was emerging that had never existed before.

For Ali who lived ten minutes at a time, tasted the presence of what had once been. He saw the lady’s lost home. His eye the spy of his heart. And he couldn’t avert his gaze. The glowing house standing on a windy hillock. The cool shade of date palms, the earthy smell of lively flowerbeds, trickling fountains playing the music of heaven, enormous teakwood doors, marbled staircases and most clear of all, the library which glimmered of books filled with endless dreams.

This loss was a reality Ali thought he accepted. Like everybody else in the Zone, his family had lost their dream as well. He saw the blank faces and empty eyes of his mother and father who lived in a squalid apartment that had miraculously never, not once, been hit. He knew why they rarely left its narrow confines. It wasn’t for any fear but the singular fact that the world outside, this Zone, held nothing of value for them. They had so few words left now, so desiccated were their empty lives. At night, he would fall to his knees and press his forehead hard against a gifted prayer mat, pleading and sobbing. All his efforts a band-aid for a gaping wound where bone gleamed back.

Deprived of land, hearth, factory and shop. All lost to the relentless tide of an invasion that now curled up into the black night of the OHA. But would they be deprived of memory, of thought, as well? No matter how painful, perhaps this was the only way for their brutalized humanity to survive…

“Do you think it’s possible to take all these broken pieces and make something new out of it?” he asked no one in particular.

Lost, he couldn’t remember the bomb streaking towards his destiny. It might as well have been the mother of all bombs that had pockmarked the Zone over the ravaged decades. He recalled the dusty words of a poet whose name was lost to ashes. The answers we hunger for already reside in our heart. He saw himself, a proud man standing tall in the redness of dawn.

So Ali fell to his knees to look below the tattered sofa that served as her humble bed. He tossed open the roughly finished cupboards, the low humble shelves. Spice jars and mirrors fell, dashed against the dirt floor.

He screamed and raged for that key. It would be found for the lady, for himself, for their weeping nation, he vowed. The old woman smiled at him faintly, like a ghost. Her dry lips moved silently in prayer before she blew her blessings upon him. It felt like a cool breeze for his tired soul, all the way from a homeland he might still know.


© 2022 by Murtaza Mohsin

2000 words

Murtaza Mohsin takes things as they are and tinkers with words. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan and is curious to see where this writing thing goes. His fiction has appeared in Future SF Digest and is forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge. 


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BOOK REVIEW: Patternmaster by Octavia Butler

written by David Steffen

Patternmaster is a 1976 science fiction novel by Octavia Butler, first book in the publication order of the Patternist series, and the final book chronologically in the storyline.

The story takes place in a distant future where the two dominant groups of humanity are the Patternists (powerful networked telepaths that are the result of selective breeding for telepathic traits) and the clayarks (semi-human creatures created by mutated human DNA altered by an alien plague). The Patternists have long been the dominant group, with their powerful telepathic, telekinetic, and healing abilities (with individuals being stronger at certain abilities), and the clayarks mostly living as roving bands with stolen weapons in the wilderness between defended compounds.

But the order of everything is in jeopardy as the Patternmaster, the most powerful telepath who ties all the rest together, may not have long to live. The clayarks seem to sense the uncertainty and seem to be massing for greater attacks.

The protagonist of the novel is Teray, one of the children of Rayal. With the upcoming succession, assumptions and understanding about the existing order no longer stand and Teray finds himself just trying to find a place to stand in the world that seems to be shifting all around him.

This is the chronological conclusion that the rest of the series was backstory to. Wild Seed is still my favorite but I can see why this spawned the rest of the series–political intrigue between powerful telepaths and their powerful enemies. Well worth a read!

DP FICTION #38A: “Giant Robot and the Infinite Sunset” by Derrick Boden

Giant Robot stands alone on the battlefield. Its hulking titanium shoulders slouch. Its articulated polymer knees bow inward. Its blazing fiberoptic gaze falters, downturned. But Giant Robot experiences neither regret nor remorse while surveying the wreckage at its feet.

It knows only aloneness.

Giant Robot scours the battlefield. It scrutinizes the meat and metal carcasses that litter this desert torched to glass. Servos click a nervous rhythm beneath its knuckled joints. It relocates corpses with the utmost delicacy, but still they crumble in its hands. Underneath, there is only ash. Its gaze sags—

There. A patch of sand between two corpses, shielded by an overturned transport. A desert bloom sprouts, an improbable splay of color. Lavender? Periwinkle?

No. Amethyst.

Blood glazes the corpses’ caved chests, the crimson an unlikely complement to the orphaned flower. Giant Robot commits the image to memory.

Jean would be pleased.

A breeze whistles through a nearby bunker. Each ruptured window offers its own harmonizing tone: a pipe organ of sandbag, plaster, and wind. The western sky flares a brilliant orange.

No. Tangerine.

Giant Robot commits it to memory. Despite the glut of battlefield data it has collected, Giant Robot is still mostly empty.

It presses on, in search of companionship.

Giant Robot is hard on the outside: titanium carapace, thermoplastic sensor shields, kevlar joints. Giant Robot is soft on the inside: silicone insulation, solid state circuitry. Only Jean knows the passcode to Giant Robot’s insides. Only Jean knows where to apply a wrench and where to employ a delicate touch.

It has been three days since Jean last touched Giant Robot’s insides.

Giant Robot’s feet crush everything in its path. Canteens burst like balloons. Bones crumble to dust. Tank shells rupture. Giant Robot has not mastered the skill of walking delicately.

Electromagnetic activity spikes in sector seven. A new threat approaches.

A companion.

The threat advances rapidly: now active on infrared, now visual. It screams through the air ten meters above the battlefield. Rail guns glisten against the setting sun: now marigold, now marmalade. Twin thrusters rend a trough of metal carnage. Dust eddies toward the horizon.

Giant Robot engages. The dance is awkward at first, a flurry of missteps and missed projectiles. But soon they achieve a rhythm: a tango of fist and plasma. The threat is fast. Lithe. Fast Robot begins to overpower Giant Robot.

Could this be the companion Giant Robot has sought?

As Fast Robot grinds Giant Robot against a trench of metal, Giant Robot plucks a tooth of glass from the personnel transport, reflects the cider-red sunset for Fast Robot to behold.  Fast Robot pays no heed to Giant Robot’s offering.

Fast Robot presses the attack.

Giant Robot wrestles free, dives toward the bunker. It swivels its pneumatic stabilizers, blasts a harmonic chord through the windows.

Fast Robot pays no heed. It launches into the air, lands on the desert blossom. Plasma arcs from its wrist-cannon. Giant Robot dodges, swings. Fast Robot’s parry suffers a microsecond delay as high-frequency data packets pelt it from a distant source.

Giant Robot casts its gaze down, crestfallen. Fast Robot is remotely controlled. A proxy. It will never know the colors Giant Robot knows.

The dance persists, though drained of its prior intensity. Seventeen maneuvers later, Fast Robot lies defeated. Smoke curls from ruined thrusters. Rail guns lie mangled.

The sky turns bronze, then rust.

Giant Robot does not know why Jean did what she did, but Command was not pleased. The things she put inside Giant Robot, they said, do not belong. The analyzers. The comparators. The recognition of a frescoed sunrise on descent from the drop ship. The mosaic of flowers during an autumn harvest. A precision of colors. Not blue sky. Cobalt. Not red blood. Wine.

These processes interfere with mission parameters, Command said. A millisecond’s slack in response time is the difference between victory and annihilation, they said. When Jean explained that these processes took mere microseconds, they court-martialed her. She would never again touch the insides of a robot, giant or otherwise.

But Jean thought ahead. She protected Giant Robot’s insides with her passcode. The sun still sets: now clay, now amber.

Giant Robot hesitates. Through a fissure in Fast Robot’s smoldering carapace, a familiar insignia. Command.

Rotors whir from the east. A drone hovers over the battlefield. It emits a high-frequency burst. It whispers the passcode to Giant Robot’s insides.

Jean.

Giant Robot’s chest plate swings open. The signal cleaves the firewall, enters the prefrontal processor.

Something’s wrong. This is not Jean’s delicate touch. This is harsh, callous. A violation. Someone has stolen Jean’s passcode.

Giant Robot tries to sever the connection but it’s too late. The drone buzzes toward the horizon. Giant Robot zooms in. Despite the distance, Giant Robot recognizes the model: this probe is from Command. Was the duel a test? Did Giant Robot fail?

Giant Robot’s carapace reseals, but something has changed.

It turns westward, detects only the dusty horizon. The sun will set in thirty-four seconds.

It scours the remains of the fallen, finds only a bodycount and the hollow acknowledgement of victory.

It stares at the face of a corpse, but cannot describe the color of her eyes.

Giant Robot has never been emptier.

Heat signatures register in sector nine. The next battle awaits. It turns—and hesitates. At its feet lies the mangled body of Fast Robot. A gouge of molten armor burns…just like…

A digital synapse arcs across a non-networked processor in the softest region of Giant Robot’s body. Giant Robot’s musculature trembles. Its eyes flicker.

Coquelicot. The ember is coquelicot: the first color Giant Robot ever learned. The color of Jean’s hair, tousled as she eased her diodes into Giant Robot’s soft insides for the first time. The hair that sprawled beneath her rigid body within her coffin, self-inflicted wounds sill fresh on her wrists.

Giant Robot grazes the coquelicot ember with an outstretched finger. It registers a surge of pain.

It turns, slightly less empty, and lumbers toward sector nine.

 


© 2018 by Derrick Boden

 

Author’s Note: A while back I was browsing the web looking for some fresh desktop background artwork, and I happened across a piece of original art that captured my attention so intensely I felt compelled to write about it.  The image was of a hulking metal robot, standing alone on a battlefield at dusk.  Something about the robot – the slope of its massive shoulders, maybe, or the position of its tiny eyes – felt so complex and sad.  It was a powerful piece of art, and I can only hope that this story does it justice.

 

Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including Daily Science FictionFlash Fiction Online, and Perihelion.  He is a writer, a software developer, a traveler, and an adventurer.  He currently calls New Orleans his home, although he’s lived in thirteen cities spanning four continents.  He is owned by three cats.  Find him at derrickboden.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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