Item List

Binary
by Kevin Mercurio

Seldom is there ever a moment in time noticed
That does not consist of obvious obscurity
But subtle uneasiness
Topics that define previous generations’ normalities
To later generations’ irregularities
Discussions that persist in the ambiance like humidity
The undiscovered ether waiting to be understood
Waiting to be articulated
Propagated through minds using neuronal electrical potential
Exactly like neuronal electrical potential
To plant ourselves on the surface of a planet filled with billions
Shared interests, shared disinterests
Shared experiences, shared inexperiences
Created categories to better describe individuals for what they are
Instead of why they are
Despite how we come from one group, existing or non-existing
One value, one or zero
But labels bring the inevitable fall of orderly men
Breaking bridges recently built
Severing ties recently strengthened
For the purpose of identification
The antagonist to collaboration
Let us think in specifications
Immorality in social behaviours, gender duplicity, racial non-amalgamation
Where does one start when the path begins in the median
When these complex ideas are so blatantly clear
But the words just seem to crumble off the tongue
Opposite of sense
To an end, we juxtapose with stupidity
Can one know the opinions to grasp in a sea of nonsense
Which actors scream rational afterthought rather than immediate impulse
In this performance we did not buy tickets for
The catastrophic debacle of the decade
Summarized in simple terms:
How do we talk?
How do we explain ideas that we do not yet fully comprehend
But want to be a part of the conversation
Not left out of quintessential decisions
Since how else do we determine a spectrum of reason
The solution?
Stutter, stammer, tongue-twist hesitation fillers into a string of phrases
Hoping that trust outweighs the conflict
A tremendous inferno blazing within
To puncture a hole in an already capsizing argument
Rather than securing the break
Forget ego, forget pride
Remember that we are binary
Not in the sense most frequently fought about
But existing or non-existing
One or zero
We are one, literally one
So listen!
Empathize with those who have good intentions
Abstain from gladiatorial vernaculars
And be one
One or zero?
Literally one every time
As we will mean to be.

_____

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
– Maya Angelou

Blue Elephant
by Kevin Mercurio

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

Nothing.

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

Jamie reached out his hand, searching the nightstand for the alarm.

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

He couldn’t find it. He groaned.

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

“Jamie!” His mother shouted from the kitchen. “Turn off your alarm already, it’s time for breakfast.”

He stuck his head out from under his pillow. With all the effort he could muster, he found his phone on the floor. He shut off the alarm and quickly dozed off again.

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

“DAMN SNOOZE BUTTONS!”

Jamie sat straight up, grabbed his phone, typed the 6-digit security code and turned off the alarm.

“Jamie!” His mother called out again. “Your pancakes are getting cold."

“Just a sec mom!”

His eyes caught glimpses of red circles with numbers around them. They were all over his phone menu. What did I do the night before again? Jamie thought.

“Jamie!”

“WAIT ONE SECOND MOM.”

Jamie opened his Nostalgiabook app first. He had six notifications and two Delivery responses. A shot of dopamine flooded his brain. Most notifications were pretty meaningless, consisting of old friends asking him to like their new businesses and friends of friends’ birthday reminders. There were 24 likes on the photo he posted – apparently from last night. The picture was of him and Daron in front of a house filled with fellow graduate students. She had joined him to attend the semester’s residence party. That explains the massive headache I have.

He flipped through his newsfeed looking for photos from last night’s party, scrolling past news articles on the earthquake that happened in Puerto Rico, life hacks, and Donald Trump’s impeachment trials. If he recalled correctly – which by no means he was completely sure of – there were hundreds of students that attended, including many of the girls in his classes. Did I score last night? Jamie wondered.

“Jamie! I’m not going to call you again.”

“ALRIGHT I’M COMING. GOD.”

Jamie rolled out of bed, slipped on a pair of university sweatpants and a Superbeam brick-coloured shirt and waddled downstairs to the dining room. His plate of pancakes had already been laid out for him, along with a banana and a glass of orange juice. Jamie’s mother was feeding his baby sister on one end of the table, while his father was reading the newspaper on the opposite end. Jamie poured maple syrup and began chowing down.

“How was your night, Jamie?” His father asked, looking up from the Sports Section.

“Fine,” Jamie replied. As he said this, he felt a vibration in his pants pocket and pulled out his phone. It was a Delivery message from Daron: Need to talk. Let’s meet after morning class.

Jamie started feeling a bit anxious and tried to recall any memory of last night. Had I done anything wrong?

“What time is your class?” His mother asked.

“I’m 26 mom, I know I’m running late.”

“That’s not what I meant. I genuinely wanted to ask you about your class and what it's about.”

“Jah moo gie,” Jamie’s sister added. His sister was just two years old. She was holding her favourite toy, a blue stuffed elephant, trying not to get it in her bowl of cereal. There was a huge gap in their age and so Jamie didn’t really do anything with her unless his parents asked him to babysit. His parents would often go out to the movies, have dinner at exotic restaurants, and go dancing at the Latin Discotheque.

“It’s just about molecular biology. You probably wouldn’t understand.”

Jamie gulped down the remaining pancakes and banana, chugged the glass of orange juice, and flew upstairs without another word. He showered, got dressed and was out the door in efficient time. He put on his headphones and opened the JukeboxInfinify app to listen to the latest music from his favourite artists. He felt relieved scanning through his suggested playlists and seeing the top listened songs of his preferred genres. He saw the bus was already at the stop as he rounded the corner of his street and ran as fast as he could to catch it.

“Just in time,” the bus driver said, “you must be going somewhere important.”

Jamie didn’t hear nor look up at the bus driver as he scanned his pass and sat down. He was preoccupied with hypothetical things that could have happened last night. Had he been mean to Daron? Had he hooked up with one of the other girls in his class and left her there alone? Jamie was so preoccupied inside his head that he didn’t even notice that he sat down on someone’s lap.

“Boy, get off me!” The lady exclaimed.

“I’m sorry,” Jamie said, as he took the seat next to her.

The lady was an elderly Jamaican woman who had just gotten off work, doing overnight custodial duties at the new hospital next to his house. She was a single mother of five children, two of which had moved away to California to pursue their acting aspirations. Her eldest daughter was a computer scientist at Frugal and stayed home during the night to watch over the other two children, young twin boys who really liked playing tackle football in the house.

“W’ur you learn how to si’down?” The lady grumbled.

Jamie wasn’t paying attention to her. He really wanted to find out what had happened last night. He opened the Filteram app and started scrolling through the front page. Among them were photos of famous celebrities having fun at the beach, graduate school peers hiking through some rainforest in South America, and pets happily obeying their owner’s commands. Kevin’s cat playing fetch with a rolled-up paper ball made him grin with delight. Finally, he got to the pictures of the party. Lots of people having a good time dancing and playing games. There’s one with him in the background talking to his crush, Ariana! Dopamine shot. There’s another one with him, Daron and a group of other students! Another shot.

He arrived on campus full of energy and ready for morning class. When he got to the room, he scanned for Daron but couldn’t find her. He decided to sit near the back of the class where the professor wouldn’t be able to see his laptop screen, nor would other students in the room. There were 15 other students there, all with laptops out. Some were listening and jotting down notes as the professor changed the intonation of her voice. Others were not paying attention, but instead were checking emails, using the Frugal app to search for nearby food places to eat at lunch, or catching up on the latest fashion news. That last one was Ariana. He noticed she was perusing fashion trends, which made him open her Filteram profile. What an insane number of followers, Jamie thought.

Class ended but Jamie had barely noticed until Daron walked up from near the front of the class and sat beside him. She looked terrible. Her eyes were really puffy, as if she had been crying the night before. Her blonde hair was not brushed and there was no attempt at putting on any makeup. Jamie was concerned.

“How’s it going?” Jamie asked.

“Can we talk outside?” Daron replied.

“Have you been crying all night?”

“C’mon. Let’s talk outside.”

Jamie and Daron walked out of the building and sat in a semi-secluded area surrounded by small hedges. There were other students there; two were doing various yoga positions, while two others were playing a card game.

“I want to talk about last night,” Daron began.

“Is there something that happened?” Jamie’s heart began to race.

“I’m upset about what you did.”

“What did I do last night?”

“You posted a picture of me on your Chirper profile,” Daron said, tearing up again.

Jamie knew about the Nostalgiabook post but not this other picture. He took out his phone and opened the Chirper app. He did post a picture last night. Well actually it was a picture of himself, taking a selfie in what seemed to be the backyard of the residence in front of a beer pong table. His expression was that of a puzzled smile, holding two beers and a ping-pong ball all in one hand. Beside him was his friend Tyler, who had just made the craziest trick shot that Jamie had ever seen. He captioned the photo: Guess I won’t be the only one scoring tonight.

“I just see the picture I took with Tyler.”

“Look in the top right corner.”

Jamie’s gaze went to the top right corner. There was Daron, embraced by a tall man in a sports jersey. They were making out. His face looked familiar.

“That’s John, my ex-boyfriend.”

“Oh no,” Jamie whispered.

“Why did you post that! Eric saw that post and was messaging me all throughout the party. On every single app. You know how my phone dies super early every night. Stupid battery keeps running out! I couldn’t answer and explain myself.”

“How could I know that was you in the corner of the picture? It could have been any couple making out!”

“Well it was me! Thanks a lot.”

“What happened when you got home?”

“We had this huge argument and broke up. He said he wouldn’t have been so angry if I had just contacted him to explain what was going on. It’s all your fault!”

“Hey, don’t put all the blame on me! What were you thinking, making out with your ex?”

“I didn’t know he was going to be there! I only noticed when he posted on Nostalgiabook that he was having fun at a party tonight. Then he posted a picture of him and some friends in the residence on Filteram. Just a huge coincidence. I remember my heart pounding and I went out to get some air. And there he was.”

“Still doesn’t explain why you guys made out.”

“I don’t know, Jamie! Life is complicated, full of feelings and thoughts that you can’t always put into a few words. It’s not simple. It was a lapse of judgement. I feel terrible about it.”

“You want me to take it down?”

“No. It’s too late now. I’m just so depressed. I downloaded the Spark and Buzz apps to try and move on. It’s making me feel a little better, but I still feel so alone.”

“I think you need to just relax and take it easy. I’m subscribed to this guru on ShortVideoAddictions who meditates every single day. He seems really happy. Maybe you could try it.”

“I don’t know. I’m not much into siting down and being aware of where my mind wanders. I just need to get over this quick. Anyway, I’m late for class, I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay. Sorry again, Daron.”

Jamie watched as Daron got into her PersonalStranger car and sped off to class across campus. Jamie looked at his phone, it was past noon. He realized he had two Nostalgiabook messages that he had not checked before. One was from a group chat he was mysteriously added to with no actual content. The other was from his mom reminding him that they had Latin dancing lessons at 1:00 pm today and needed him to babysit his little sister. Damn, I forgot, Jamie thought.

Jamie called a PersonalStranger car and went home. It was just in time too, as his parents were about ready to leave.

“You’re late,” Jamie’s dad said.

“Sorry, there was a lot on my mind after class. Micro-stressing over things.”

“Talk later?” His mom asked, putting on her coat.

“Um, yeah sure.”

Jamie and his sister watched his parents leave the driveway and then sat down on the couch. Jamie’s sister started crying. Confused, he stared at his phone, then put it down and started looking around the house for her blue stuffed elephant.

_____

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
- William James

Continuance
by Kevin Mercurio

The neighbourhood street was calm and still, as the residents had been sound asleep for a few hours now. Driveways were lined with cars and only a few houses had dimly lit windows, usually of a child pretending to fall asleep but through defiance stayed up playing his favourite video game.

That was the case in the Dawkins household. The main floor was dark, though walls were lined with family portraits and reflected moonlight cascading through the front windows. Up the stairs, Timothy had just finished the multiplayer, online campaign for The Perfect Crime, a game in which you played a detective that was able to go back in time to solve gruesome murders. The main character, Detective Jerry Sambro, was a rising star at the precinct, always able to identify exactly how murders were performed and who committed the crime. The caveat to his powers was that he could not prevent the murder, as that would result in time travel discrepancies likely beyond that of the game creator’s expertise. Consequently, Detective Sambro was incredibly accurate. So much so, that when he eventually committed the murder of his own wife, he continued to go back in time until he got the murder just right to avoid suspicion from his fellow officers. That was the point of the game.

Timothy couldn’t sleep. Visuals of death, courtrooms and paperwork circled in his mind whenever he closed his eyes. He realized what he was missing. He searched his room, but couldn’t find it anywhere. He checked under his bed, in his closet, behind his desk, but it was no where to be seen. He was becoming anxious and had to find it fast.

His mom, a professor at the University of Ottawa, was sound asleep in the other room. Her husband, a mechanic at a nearby garage, was snoring loudly beside her. In an extreme panic, Dr. Dawkins sat up out of bed. It was so sudden that Timothy, who had sneaked into his parents’ room to look for the toy, had jumped back in fright, bumping into the dresser behind him and sending books, cosmetics and other items crashing to the floor.

“Oh no!” Dr. Dawkins exclaimed.

“Ahhhhh!” Timothy shrieked.

“What the—“ Bill opened this eyes and wiped the drool off his face. “What’s going on? Timothy? What are you doing up?”

“I forgot it at the lab,” Dr. Dawkins said.

“Forgot what? Timothy, what are you doing here?”

“I can’t find my penguin,” Timothy said.

“What penguin?”

“The penguin G-pa gave him,” Dr. Dawkins said. “He left it in my office yesterday and I forgot to bring it back.”

“I can’t sleep without it,” Timothy frowned.

“Oh c’mon, can we just wait until tomorrow?”

“No, I was supposed to bring it for him. I’ll get it.”

“Honey, it’s one o’clock in the morning.”

“But Bill,” Timothy said, “I can’t sleep without it.”

“It won’t be too long, no one’s on the streets this late.”

“It’s just a penguin Tim,” Bill said, “you have a bunch of other toys, don’t you?”

“It’s not just any toy, Bill. You know how much that penguin means to him. He didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye.”

“I miss G-pa. It reminds me of him, when he would do those boring animal shows at bedtime. It helped me sleep.”

“It’ll be quick.”

“Ugh. Don’t forget to put your lights on.”

Dr. Dawkins hopped out of bed and got dressed. She put Timothy in his room and tucked him back into bed. She surrounded him with his other stuffed animals: an elephant, a giraffe, a monkey, a bear. He was covered by so many toys that his face could barely be seen.

“It’s not the same without the penguin,” Timothy said.

“I know, love. I’ll be fast, and then the zoo will be complete,” Dr. Dawkins smiled and kissed him on the forehead.

She climbed into her car and headed to the laboratory. Dr. Dawkins was driving faster than usual. Her group had decided to do a thorough cleaning of the lab, which included the office space that held most of her things. She had decided to bring home the majority of her valuables. However, she left the larger items in the hallway outside the lab. There weren’t that many other active labs around, and the members of adjacent groups were extremely friendly and trustworthy.

There was a loud thump! and Dr. Dawkins slammed on the breaks. She didn’t see what she had hit. She pulled over to the side and got out of the car. She walked a few steps back to when she heard the sound and saw a bunny that had hopped onto the sidewalk. The bunny was still alive, however it seemed slightly injured from the crash. As Dr. Dawkins tried to approach, the bunny awkwardly hopped away into nearby bushes. Disappointed in herself, she walked back to her car, turned on her lights, and continued to the laboratory.

Dr. Dawkins arrived and parked her car in the empty lot. She gave the surprised security guard a greeting and took the elevator to her floor of the building. It was quiet. The only sound that was heard was the low humming of deep freezers and other research equipment. As she passed the neighbouring labs, she noticed they had decided to clean their spaces as well, evident by the large amount of chairs, tables and boxes lining the sides of the hallway. It was difficult to distinguish when their stuff ended and hers began.

To her surprise, there was no penguin in the hallway. She moved tables and shelving units, opened large boxes, but couldn’t find it anywhere. She checked the boxes of the other research groups— still nothing. She entered the door to her lab, and to her pointless desire, searched the empty office space and around research equipment. The penguin was no where to found.

Dr. Dawkins began retracing her steps throughout the day, wondering if she had brought her things to other locations in the building. She checked the women’s washroom, peered through the administrative office door window, the kitchenette area, even both elevators. Finally, she frantically went back to the security desk and asked the guard if someone had found a giant, stuffed penguin. There was no penguin in the “Lost & Found” cabinet.

“Are you sure? Can you check your office behind you?”

“Miss, I can assure you that we do not keep stuffed penguins in the security office.”

“Thanks anyway.”

Dr. Dawkins went back to her car and started driving. Perhaps she had brought it to the car and dropped it somewhere before going home. She thought about where she had went that afternoon: the pharmacy, the grocery store, the garage to pick up Bill. It just wouldn’t make sense to bring the penguin along while going inside these locations. The penguin was, to everyone’s disbelief, a full meter in height.

G-pa, or Grandpa, was Dr. Dawkins’ father and was very close with Timothy throughout his early childhood. After the divorce with Timothy’s biological father, G-pa would often look after Timothy while Dr. Dawkins was busy with work at the university. They would go to the park, get ice cream, even play video games together. One day, G-pa took Dr. Dawkins and Timothy to the local fair and played the carnival game where you had to get these balls into a basket tilted at a 45° angle. Most people would try and lightly arc the ball in, but this is a common mistake. The real trick, which G-pa knew, was to throw the ball hard, at the top of the basket, which would angle the ball down to the bottom and remain there even with more bouncing. G-pa got all three balls to stay in the basket, and won the biggest prize at the fair: an enormous Emperor Penguin.

It was this next part that remained vivid in Dr. Dawkins’ memory. Upon receiving it, G-pa knelt down, looked Timothy in the eyes and said, “These games, Tim, are as easy as they look. But they take some critical thinking. If you have to get these balls in the basket, or get plastic rings around a bottle, it is not as simple as doing what makes the most sense. Think about why these games exist in the first place. There’s always a catch, and it’s your job to find it. With this penguin, I know you can outsmart them, because you are smarter than them. And I hope that—“

At that moment, Dr. Dawkins had accidentally passed a red light and, without having her lights on, was not seen by an oncoming vehicle from the left side.

_____

Dr. Dawkins woke up in a hospital bed. To her left, there was an IV bag dripping fluids into a tube connected to her arm. Subtle beeps! were heard that monitored her heart rate, which at the time was calm. Her left hand was completely scarred with small scratches. Her right leg had been propped up and was sealed in a large cast. On the far right wall next to the entrance of the room was Bill and Timothy, sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on uncomfortable waiting room chairs. She had her own private room, usually given to patients in the intensive care unit.

A large white board was on the wall in front of her. Scribbles of black marker listed various medications and times for check-ups by the doctor and nurses. At the top of the board wrote “Reconstructive Surgery”. She brought her right hand to her face, but was met with gauze bandaging.

“Oh god, no…” Dr. Dawkins pleaded.

This woke up Bill, who shook Timothy awake as well.

“Mom!” Timothy yelled.

“No no no, my face,” Dr. Dawkins whispered. Her voice was strained.

“Oh honey, don’t move too much,” Bill said.

“What happened? How long have I been out?”

“About two days. It was one hell of a crash. Police say you ran a red light and collided with another vehicle who hit you on the left side. Your vehicle rolled into a ditch.”

“Oh my god. I must’ve forgot to put my lights on.”

“I don’t think that would have saved you.”

“And the driver of the other car?”

“He was in critical condition, just like you. Though I was told he passed earlier this morning.”

Dr. Dawkins closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“I’m happy you’re alive mom,” Timothy said after a long pause.

“I’m happy to see you, honey,” Dr. Dawkins said.

“Are you hungry? I was thinking of swinging by the convenience store across the street to grab us a some lunch. Tim wanted a brownie. I know it’s early but I think the little guy deserves one.”

“They’re really big. Bill brought me there yesterday during your surgery and I could barely finish it.”

Dr. Dawkins smiled, to the best of her ability. “Of course, but I’m okay,” she said. “Thank you, Bill.”

“I’ll be back. Tim, time me. I bet you my brownie that I’ll be back here in six minutes. Can you set your watch?”

“Ready,” Tim said.

“Okay, counting down. Three. Two. One. Start!” Bill flew threw the doorway, almost colliding with the doctor who entered the room. Dr. Dawkins and Timothy laughed.

“Looks like someone is awake now,” the doctor said. “How are you feeling?”

“Okay,” Dr. Dawkins said, “though my leg is a bit stiff.”

The doctor laughed. “Glad you’re making light of the situation.”

“Five minutes left,” Timothy said.

“What’re we counting down to, Tim?”

“Bill bet me he would be able to get lunch at the coffee shop across the street and be back in six minutes.”

“What do you get if you win?”

“His brownie, along with mine.”

“That’s a lot of brownies.”

“I would say too many,” Dr. Dawkins added.

“Aw, I won’t eat them all at once.”

The doctor asked a few more questions and went through the checklist on his board. He checked the monitor, facial bandages, and ensured the leg cast was fit properly.

“Four minutes left,” Timothy said.

“Doctor, how extensive was my reconstructive surgery?”

“You want the honest truth?”

“Please, and don’t hold back.”

“The other car was travelling fast went it collided on your left side. So much so that it had pummelled the driver’s window into the left side of your face. There was also extensive battering to your nose and mouth, likely against the steering wheel when your car rolled into the ditch in the far corner of the intersection. Your nose was completely broken, eyes were swollen shut, and you might notice that there are two teeth missing on your right side. That was just your facial area. Your right leg had been broken in several places. Femur bone had snapped in two, and your knee cap was shattered into multiple pieces. It’ll be some time before you can walk again, but rest assured that you will be able to walk again.”

“Three minutes left,” Timothy said.

“And the other driver?”

“The other driver was speeding down the road perpendicular to yours. He wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and got ejected from the vehicle. Skull was cracked, and there was a deep laceration on his right shoulder, not to mention the six broken ribs. He had lost a lot of blood by the time paramedics made it on scene. Upon his arrival, he went through a long surgery to stop the brain hemorrhage and close the shoulder wound. Sixteen hours of work. He was having difficulty breathing after the surgery and was put on life support. Unfortunately, he succumbed to his injuries and passed this morning with his family by his side.”

“Two minutes left,” Timothy said.

“Oh my god,” Dr. Dawkins uttered, not knowing how to react.

“You seem to have stabilized. But rest up, you have a long road to recovery ahead.”

With a final check of his clipboard, and a quick scribble on the white board in front of the bed, the doctor walked out of the room.

Dr. Dawkins was full of mixed feelings. She was thankful that she had survived the crash and was able to see her family again. On the other hand, someone had died. That could have just as easily been her, passing into the early hours of dawn next to her husband and son. She had been extremely fortunate that her injuries were not as serious, and thought about the road to her recovery. Hard days of rehabilitation followed by long periods of rest.

“One minute left,” Timothy said, “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

Dr. Dawkins thought about two nights before. She remembered that she was on the way home from the lab. She tried to remember why she was there to begin with. It seemed like she was there really late at night, as there were very little people around in the building. A hallway full of chairs, tables and boxes. An empty lot. Turning on the lights in the car. Timothy bumping into the dresser. She was looking for the penguin.

Dr. Dawkins looked out the glass panel into the hall and saw a woman and daughter sitting, holding each other. She looked at them for a while. The daughter comforting her mother, rhythmically shaking up and down. This was interrupted by the faint sound of sirens.

“Time’s up,” Timothy cheered. “That’s two brownies for me!”

The rattle of police sirens became increasing louder, and finally settled outside the window which faced the convenience store.

_____

Dr. Dawkins finished her daily session at the rehabilitation centre. It was a gruelling hour of forced walking and stretching. When the hour was up, she chose to lie down for a few minutes and catch her breath.

It was a month since the crash. The wounds on her left hand had healed. There were very few scars left on her face from the reconstructive surgery: a small cut on the middle of her forehead and another cut on the left side of her cheek. Her nose was badly damaged from the crash and thus was a bit deformed, with less protrusion and slanted towards the right. Otherwise, she was on her way to a full recovery.

She thought about the funeral last week for Bill and the two other patrons of the convenience store. They had tried to stop the robbery. Dylan Paris, an experienced skydiver who was only visiting the area to participate in a World Record at the Gananoque Jump Site, had tried to wrestle the robber to the ground at the cash register. Kelly Tubman, an undertaker at the local morgue, was unfortunately caught in the crossfire upon entry into the shop. Bill had also tried to wrestle the shotgun from the robber with Paris, but was shot and killed. The robber later found himself in a shootout with police, killing one officer before he committed suicide.

Dr. Dawkins cried. What a barbaric end to such prosperous lives.

“Why did he do it,” she whispered to herself.

Dr. Dawkins sat up and walked to the entrance of the rehabilitation centre. She sat down in the lounge area waiting for her mother to pick her up. To pass the time, she took out her phone and opened the Chirper app to update herself on the happenings of the world, and to restrict her thoughts from wandering into unwanted territory. She first looked at the most popular stories. Globally, there were many trending headlines that caught her eye: #Brexit, #climatestrikes, #climatestrikesback, #scalenewriting, #thesurgeonserialkiller, #PrayForPuertoRico, #puppies&kitties, #ghostbustersremake, #MarchForOurLives, #sunshinestartssoon, #hashtagsfordays, #LetsTalkHealth, #wholesomemes, #iscreamforicecream, #KobeFarewell, #faithinhumanityrestored, #flatearthbustysun, #babyyoda, #firstworldproblems, #igotaflushot.

She scanned through the top stories of each but still felt the same. For some reason, she couldn’t wrestle this feeling of impending hopelessness out of her mind. Even staying on #puppies&kitties had little impact to boost her mood.

Dr. Dawkins returned to her newsfeed and scrolled down the page. Stories of newly published papers and the plannings of scientific conferences flooded the majority of her feed. She came to a post by a student researcher who also worked at the university. Saul Crichtons, a PhD student at the university, had taken various photos of a giant, stuffed penguin doing various human-like tasks. There was one photo of the penguin sitting at a small table, having a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper. There was another picture of the penguin outside on a bicycle. The third picture was the penguin at the lab, pretending to look at a flask full of yellow liquid with protective glasses on. There was even a short stop animation video of the penguin moving things back into the empty office spaces, ending with the penguin ordering a fish taco on a computer to celebrate.

“That’s Tim’s penguin!” She said out loud.

Dr. Dawkins’ mother had stepped into the rehabilitation centre and was walking towards her. “What penguin?”

“The penguin Papa gave Tim. I just found it.”

“You’re still looking for that penguin?” Her mother rolled her eyes.

“It’s very important to him.”

“It seems like he’s moved on, honey.”

They both got into the car and drove home. Dr. Dawkins couldn’t stop looking at the post. She couldn’t believe it. Someone had actually stole the penguin. She opened Saul Crichtons’ Chirper profile and scrolled through it. He was a recent manager at a communications company called Synergy before being laid off due to employee strikes and financial downfalls. His latest posts were of the penguin, and the expressed excitement of having the penguin as the new lab mascot.

Dr. Dawkins sent the following private message to Saul:

Dear Saul, my name is Dr. Rachael Dawkins, and I had recently noticed that you had posted several pictures of a giant, stuffed Emperor Penguin. I was wondering if you had found this penguin in the building. I had a similar stuffed toy belonging to my son, who had left it at my office last month and we have been looking for it since. Unfortunately, I have been on leave and haven’t been around lately. If you found this toy, may I come by and pick it up? Thanks, RD.

Only a few minutes had passed before she had received the following message from Saul:

Hello Dr. Dawkins, and pleasure to speak to you. Yes, I had recently posted pictures of our new lab mascot, Plato the Penguin. I hope they had made you laugh as much as they did to us here. I noticed your name as the main supervisor in the neighbouring lab adjacent to us! Yes, I had found Plato while working late one night. In the middle of our hallway, crazy enough! It is unfortunate that you have not been around to claim it, for we had advertised the finding of Plato for a month, and to contact us if you had owned it. Plato has settled well into our group and we hope that you will understand that we have grown attached to it ourselves. Yours, SC.

Dr. Dawkins immediately responded with the following:

Saul, it is unfair that I have not been able to answer to your advertisement. You see, I had recently been in a car accident that required reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation. I have also been busy tending to other family matters, for which circumstances have brought me to neglect looking at emails and social media. As the sole owner of this penguin, I must demand that this toy be returned as soon as possible. Best, RD.

A few moments later, she received the following response:

I thought your son was the owner of this penguin. SC.

Dr. Dawkins was infuriated. “What is happening?!”

“Is everything okay, Rachael?”

“He’s not giving back the penguin.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know, it’s like he thinks it’s become more valuable to him than to me.”

She replied with the following message:

Listen, I just want the penguin back. It means a lot to my son, who received it from his grandfather who has now passed on. I will pick it up tomorrow. RD.

Almost instantly, she received another message:

Dr. Dawkins, I would like to make you an offer. I have spoken to the other members of this lab who also value Plato the Penguin, and they have suggested the following proposal. You see, students in the building have been trying to think of a fun event that brings together both learners and professors. I think this situation provides an opportunity for an interesting debate. We can provide our arguments as to who should keep the penguin in front of a public audience, and have a panel of students and teachers that judge who is the most deserving. You represent you and your son, and I will represent myself and my research group. Whoever wins the debate can keep Plato the Penguin. Regards, SC.

Dr. Dawkins was shocked. He was making this situation so much more difficult. That penguin belonged to her. Even if she had missed the opportunity to claim the penguin, that doesn’t change the fact that he had stolen it from her. Also, she had no time to debate over something so trivial. How could she waste her time at such a meaningless event? After all that happened, she deserved that penguin.

But she was a scientist. Someone who trained her entire life to argue what was true and what was not. Surely with the evidence she had, she could easily show the panel that she was the rightful owner of the penguin. She followed up with the following question:

When and where? RD.

Saul replied immediately:

Dr. Dawkins, let’s say end of this week, main auditorium, 12pm. People can watch during their lunch break. See you then. Thanks, SC.

They arrived home and, with the help of her mother, Dr. Dawkins slowly headed upstairs to rest in her bed.

_____

Dr. Dawkins arrived in the parking lot and headed into her workplace. Her leg ached with each step, but was assisted with the use of a cane. It had been about a month since she was last here, and so much had changed in her life. In contrast to the night she drove here in search for the penguin, the lot was busy with cars. Her purpose of this trip was the same. However, in this case, she knew she would finally get this toy back.

Timothy had accompanied her to the debate. It was one of Timothy’s Professional Development days, and thus did not have to go to school. He never really understood why teachers had to go to school if there were no students there to teach. Today, he was also a bit upset that he was not able to stay home on account of this debate.

“Couldn’t I stay home with G-ma instead?” Timothy asked.

“I think G-ma is tired and needs some rest. She’s been helping all week driving me to my rehab sessions. Besides, I think this could be fun and educational.”

“But why are you here? Shouldn’t you be resting?”

“I told you, I’m here to get the penguin G-pa gave you at the fair.”

They entered the building and followed the hallway to the main auditorium. On the walls, there were posters promoting the debate:

Student vs. Professor Series
Today’s Skill: Critical Thinking

CRICHTONS vs. DAWKINS
Who will keep, PLATO THE PENGUIN?

Where: Main Auditorium
When: THIS Friday, 12:00 pm

They walked into the auditorium, and to their surprise, the room was packed. Professors, researchers, administrators and students filled the seats, happily eating their lunches as they awaited the highly anticipated event. At the bottom of the room was an open space with a table which sat two professors and two students, each with a clipboard and a pen in front of them. In front of the table sat two chairs facing the audience, each having a microphone and stand. Behind the chairs, there was a large screen projecting a slideshow with pictures of the penguin doing other various human-like tasks: playing intramural volleyball, watching television, and performing a presentation in a meeting room. These pictures were met with giggles by the attendees.

Saul Crichtons was speaking with one of the professors on the panel, Dr. Hitchens, who would serve as the moderator for the debate. Saul noticed that Dr. Dawkins and her son enter the auditorium, and came over to greet them.

“Hello Dr. Dawkins,” Saul said, “a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”

“Pleasure to meet you as well, Saul,” Dr. Dawkins said unenthusiastically.

“And this must be your son. What’s your name, little man?”

“Timothy,” Timothy said.

“And a pleasure to meet you too, Timothy. Glad you both could make it. We'll be starting very soon. Dr. Dawkins, please take a seat in the one of the chairs. Tim, you can sit in the front row next to your mother’s friends who you’ve met before.”

“Where’s the penguin?” Dr. Dawkins asked as she pointed to her colleague and motioned Timothy to sit beside him.

“Plato? Ah yes, I sent my colleague to fetch him upstairs. He will be here shortly.”

Dr. Dawkins walked up to the chairs and sat on the left side. Saul took the seat on the right and smiled at her.

The professor who Saul had been speaking to before stood up and talked into a wireless microphone. “Can I have everyone’s attention, please. We will now begin this event of the ‘Student vs. Professor Series’. As you all know, my name is Dr. Hitchens, and I will serve as the moderator for this debate. The purpose for today’s debate is to determine who is the rightful owner of the beloved Plato the Penguin. We have one of our PhD students here, Saul Crichtons, who has current possession of said penguin. This ownership is challenged by one of our faculty professors, Dr. Rachael Dawkins, who has stated that she is the true owner of the toy.”

Saul Crichtons and Dr. Dawkins smiled and waved to the crowd as their names were said.

Dr. Hitchens continued, “our panel will evaluate the presentation of the evidence, the analysis of said evidence between the two debaters, and arguing for or against said evidence to that which benefits themselves. The fight for this penguin, is as easy as it looks. But it will take some critical thinking. If you have to convince us by only stating your desires, or your interpretations without evidence, it is not as simple as doing what makes the most sense. Think about why we are holding this debate in the first place. There’s always a catch, and it’s your opponent’s job to exploit it.”

Dr. Dawkins looked at Timothy, who waved and gave her a thumbs up.

“We will start with your opening statements, followed by main arguments from the initiator with some debate. We will finish with a final round of dialogue between the two of you and a break at the end for panel members to discuss. With that, let’s begin. To decide who starts, I’ll flip a coin. Saul, since it’s your event, you call it: heads or tails?”

“Heads.”

Dr. Hitchens revealed the flipped coin. “Heads it is. Would you like to start, or would you like Dr. Dawkins to start?”

“Please, Dr. Dawkins. The floor is yours.”

As Dr. Hitchens sat down with the panel members, Dr. Dawkins cleared her throat and turned on her microphone. “Hello everyone, and thank you for attending this debate during your lunch. I imagine the topic of this debate is very amusing to most of you, and silly. However to me, and especially my son, this is very serious. You see, the penguin in question, Plato the Penguin, was taken from me one night. My son had forgotten it in my office a month ago, and my team and I had left it out in the common hallway during our latest laboratory cleanup. A forgetful incident after another, I had accidentally left the penguin in the hallway along with other things that belonged to our group. It is at this time that Saul must have taken it, and understandably so, since it must have looked like the penguin had no owner. All I want is to give this back to my son, who had originally received it from his now deceased grandfather. Please. I just want him to have it back.”

“Thank you, Dr. Dawkins, for your opening statement,” Dr. Hitchens said. “Saul, your opening statement.”

Saul turned on his microphone. “Hey everyone, and thank you for supporting our ‘Student vs. Professor Series’. I have asked to hold this debate not to wrestle a toy from a child, but to determine the very thing which drives our feeling of ownership for this toy. Plato the Penguin, as many of you have come to know, has brought joy to many people in this building. It was one night, not too long ago that I, working late hours yet again, found this penguin among the junk of many labs and office spaces conducting their annual cleanup. It was not obvious, just like Dr. Dawkins had said, if the toy had a rightful owner at this time, and it was to my credibility that I took this toy into my possession and advertised its finding to our community. We had the advertisement up for a month without any takers. Now, we will likely hear why Dr. Dawkins was not able to observe this advertisement during this time. However, it was this month that I had brought home this penguin to my baby sister, who had grown to cherish its presence. Every time she sees this toy, it always brings a smile to her face. Dr. Stewart, who also brought the toy home to his nephew, also grew a fondness for this penguin. Many of the pictures you see behind us are taken by members of this community who have found joy in sharing the penguin with their family and friends on social media. Therefore, it is to my respect for fairness that Dr. Dawkins must prove, just like I hope to prove, why she deserves ownership of this penguin.”

Dr. Hitchens finished writing on his clipboard. “Thank you, Saul. Dr. Dawkins, your first argument please.”

Smiling, Dr. Dawkins reached into her jacket pocket and took out a pile of photographs. She walked up to the panel members and laid the photographs on the table. She proceeded back to sit at her chair and turned on her microphone. “My first argument is a simple one. I present to the panel actual photographs of my son playing with the penguin. These photographs were taken over a period of several years, where he is seen playing with the penguin at our house. With these, and the fact that Saul has admitted to finding the penguin among our lab’s things during our annual cleanup, it is obvious that the penguin belongs to me.”

The panel members looked at each of the photographs carefully. They were indeed pictures of Timothy playing with a giant, stuffed Emperor Penguin in a household.

“Thank you Dr. Dawkins,” Dr. Hitchens said. “Saul, your counter-argument.”

Saul thought for a second and then turned on his microphone. “Dr. Dawkins has presented physical photographs of her son and a stuffed penguin to members of the panel. Dr. Dawkins, you believe that this constitutes evidence that the penguin belongs to you?”

Dr. Dawkins looked around and saw many eyes from the audience looking at her, as if she needed to verify this claim. “Yes, I mean the penguin is there for your eyes to see.”

As she said this, Saul walked up to the panel members and presented them a photograph of his own. The members each looked at it carefully, starting with Dr. Hitchens.

“I lay before the panel members a photograph of Dr. Samantha Harris, a past researcher in our group. What you will see is a picture of her and her husband at the local fair, holding a giant, stuffed penguin.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Dr. Dawkins said.

“When was your son born, Dr. Dawkins?” Saul asked.

“1993.”

“These photos predate that of the birth of your son. It is therefore possible that this toy, Plato the Penguin, was left here by none other than Dr. Harris after her death about 10 years ago today.”

The panel members all looked at Saul’s photograph, then back to the photographs provided by Dr. Dawkins.

“Oh c’mon. You found it during our lab’s annual cleanup with the rest of our stuff.”

“On the contrary, Dr. Dawkins. Like I said, it was clearly in the middle of the hallway next to everyone’s stuff. Each group in that corridor, including ours, had our stuff lining the hallway. The penguin could just as easily belonged to any one of us.”

“It seems,” Dr. Hitchens said, “that it will be impossible to tell which of the penguins in these photographs resembles the toy in question. Dr. Dawkins, do you have any other physical evidence of ownership?”

“That’s all I had,” Dr. Dawkins said.

“Perhaps we can go along with who deserves Plato the Penguin more, knowing that there is equal physical evidence between the two of you.”

“But that is my penguin!” Dr. Dawkins exclaimed.

Saul stood up from his chair and walked over to Dr. Dawkins. He leaned into her ear and said, “now I want the truth to come out just as much as you. Let’s use what we’ve learned throughout our careers and really give these people a show.” He pulled away, smiled and sat back down.

“Dr. Dawkins? Would you like to continue with your next argument?” Dr. Hitchens asked.

Dr. Dawkins looked down and closed her eyes. She thought about how she could convince people that this penguin was truly hers. She thought about Timothy sleeping with the penguin practically every night. She thought about G-pa kneeling down and giving Timothy the penguin for the very first time. She thought about what drove her to come to this ridiculous debate in the first place.

“Yes, um, for my second argument, I know I deserve the penguin more. Well, my family deserves the penguin more, because of how much time Tim, my son, plays with this penguin. Yes. In fact, Tim has many different animals that together, we call the zoo. He plays with this zoo almost everyday.”

“So the penguin belongs to the one who it brings the most entertainment and joy,” Saul rephrased. “Let me ask you Dr. Dawkins, how long does your son usually play with the penguin?”

“Probably at least an hour a night.”

“Split among the other stuffed animals he has, which for the sake of argument, we’ll say is around four in total. That’s about 15 minutes a day since he was given the penguin? How long ago was that?”

“His grandpa gave him the penguin about three years ago.”

“Doing the math in my head, that would be about… 11.4 days of total entertainment value.”

“I suppose.”

“Panel members, for the last month Plato the Penguin has always been in use. Whether that be entertaining my baby sister, to playing with Dr. Stewart’s nephew, to our group’s weekly meetings and those of my peers’ meetings. Frankly, if you also count the entertainment value of all those people who viewed our photos of Plato the Penguin on social media, we have equal if not more entertainment and joy brought to people in my possession than in Dr. Dawkins’ possession. I mean, didn’t you and Tim forget the penguin in your office?”

There was a short pause. Dr. Dawkins pulled on her microphone. “Yes that did happen.”

“Saul does raise a good point,” Dr. Hitchens said, “that if we want to use entertainment or joy value, obviously subjectively measured, it seems we have various people receiving entertainment from the penguin in Saul’s possession as opposed to just one person in Dr. Dawkins possession. A utilitarian argument, unfortunately, but for this debate it seems to hold true.”

Dr. Dawkins looked in disbelief at Tim and then at Saul.

“Dr. Dawkins, would you like to continue with your third argument?” Dr. Hitchens inquired.

“Yes,” Dr. Dawkins paused to think again. “Tim needs the penguin, to, sleep properly, Yes. Actually, let me step back a little here, to a month ago. Timothy woke me and my now deceased husband up in the middle of the night looking for the penguin so that he could finally sleep. I had realized that I had forgotten the toy in my office, so I came here to look for it. The penguin was taken away, by Saul, unbeknownst to me at the time, and on my way home I was in an unfortunate accident that led to reconstructive surgery on my face, minor cuts and a broken leg. Anyway, Tim needs the penguin to have a good night’s sleep, and therefore the penguin should be returned back to me, and to him.”

Saul pulled on his microphone. “Why does Tim need this toy to sleep?”

“He’s afraid at night sometimes.”

“What makes him afraid?”

She looked at Timothy. “He’s a child, Saul. I’m sure his imagination is a scary place.”

“Does he watch R-rated movies, Dr. Dawkins?”

“What?”

“Let me rephrase that. Do you allow him to watch movies that could scare him?”

“No.”

“How about video games?”

“He plays video games, yes, but nothing bad.”

“So he doesn’t play any scary or violent video games?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

Saul pulled out another photograph. “I have in my hand a screenshot of a game lobby. The game in question is called ‘The Perfect Crime’. I will describe the game in brief. Characters in the lobby play police officers at a precinct. One person is selected to be Detective Jerry Sambro, who is able to go back in time and solve gruesome murders. The catch to his powers is that he could not prevent the murder. But the point of the game, for players that get to be Detective Sambro, is to commit the perfect crime of killing his wife, fooling the other players in his precinct who are trying to solve the murder without his help.”

“How the hell did you know that, Saul?”

He ignored her. “Like I said, the photograph is a picture of the game lobby, where you can see the names of each of the players. Who is the sixth player in the game lobby, Dr. Hitchens?”

Dr. Hitchens looked closely at the photograph. “It says Timothy Dawkins.”

“Are you serious? There are probably many Timothy Dawkins in the world, I’m sure that could have been any one of them.”

“Does your son own a copy of ‘The Perfect Crime'?”

“Yes he does, but…”

“Are there violent scenes in the game that could scare a child?”

“Probably.”

“Enough to have trouble sleeping?”

“This has nothing to do with the penguin. Frankly, I feel like you’re attacking the way I raise my son.”

“That’s exactly what I’m doing. You made him depend on a toy for comfort when he was likely seeking comfort in you. He has personified this comfort within some inanimate object when you could have taught him a lesson that could save him from fear in the future.”

“Now hold on there, Saul,” Dr. Hitchens interrupted. “Let’s not get too carried away in this debate. Now the comfort value is indeed an interesting argument and perhaps Dr. Dawkins seemed to have induced this comfort in a toy when she may have been able to provide comfort herself.”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Dr. Dawkins said.

“Do you have a fourth argument, Dr. Dawkins?”

“C’mon, what really drives you to get this penguin back?” Saul whispered.

Dr. Dawkins closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “This penguin, means a lot to me and my family. This whole month has been quite overwhelming for us. The car crash, the robbery at the convenience store across the hospital… There was so much death around us. It reminds me of my father… Tim calls him G-pa. We lost G-pa to pneumonia about two years ago. The year before that, I remember he took Tim and I to the local fair, and played one of those carnival games. You know, the one where you have to get three plastic balls in a slightly slanted bucket. Well, the man did it. With ease too. It was magnificent. He won the biggest prize at the fair, which was a giant, stuffed Emperor Penguin. He immediately gave it to Tim. It was the last gift he received from him and it means a hell-of-a-lot to us. Please. Please, give us back the penguin.”

“A strong argument,” Dr. Hitchens said.

“Sentimental value,” Saul said. “Dr. Dawkins, you’ve attributed sentimental value to this penguin. I get that that is a very powerful thing.”

“Thank you.”

“Is it something you will be able to see?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, is there sentimental value in that coat you are wearing?”

“No.”

“What about the microphone in front of you?”

“No.”

“But there is sentimental value in this penguin?”

“Yes.”

“And you will be able to distinguish this?”

“Certainly.”

At that moment, a man who was standing in the back began walking down the auditorium steps to the front of the room where Saul and Dr. Dawkins were seated. He was holding two giant, stuffed Emperor Penguins. He first presented the penguins to the panel members, and then walked over to Dr. Dawkins and placed them in front of her. He proceeded to walk back to where he was standing at the back of the room.

“Thank you Jordan. Now Dr. Dawkins, could you distinguish which penguin is the one that the now deceased G-pa gave to Tim on that day at the local fair?”

“You’re joking, you’ve had two penguins this whole time? Why don’t you just keep the other one then?”

“Please, Dr. Dawkins, your choice.”

Dr. Dawkins looked at the two penguins. They were basically identical. It’s obvious that there was no physical manifestation of sentimental value she could see. However, she noticed a bit of discolouration in the white coat of the left penguin. It seemed that this one was a bit older than the other. She went for it.

“Okay Saul, I’ll play your games. It’s the left one.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Dr. Dawkins, I’m sorry, you’re wrong. Neither of these penguins is the one G-pa gave Tim.”

“What?”

“No, the penguin is actually at the back of the room with Jordan. You see, there is no real difference in these toys, is there? We as humans attribute value to these inanimate objects, but there is nothing that really connects us to these toys. In fact, if I gave you any of the penguins in front of you now and said that it was the one you wanted, we wouldn’t be here today.”

“What the fuck, Saul. Why are you doing this? Can I just have the real penguin back?”

“We’ve just established that any penguin will do. Why do you want that specific penguin back?”

“Just give it back. Tim, we’re leaving. Jordan, please come down and give us back that penguin.”

She looked at Timothy who, for an entire ten seconds, did not blink once, nor show signs of life at all. She looked at Dr. Hitchens, who was stuck in a mid turn-around motion to look at Jordan at the back of the room. Jordan had been bent over to pick up the penguin, and just never stood back up.

Dr. Dawkins looked at Saul Crichtons. He began changing, morphing into an entity that Dr. Dawkins could only watch in fear. The features on his face and body began to mold into his skin. He became featureless. His hair, his eyes and his mouth disappeared. His arms began to join with his torso, while his legs also joined together as one. He looked naked, but without any features he didn’t seem like he was. His skin tone become a pearly white.

“What the hell are you?” Dr. Dawkins said.

In a deep voice it said, “why do you want this penguin, Rachael?”

“Because! I never got to say goodbye. He died early. He had many long years ahead of him, and then poof! died to some infection in the lungs! He didn’t deserve that. And I was a terrible daughter, just awful. I never really appreciated him. I didn’t even want to go to the fair that day, but Tim convinced me to come. It’s the last good memory I have of him and me. I miss him dearly.”

After all this, she wiped the tears from her eyes and looked at Saul again. He had become this white, human-like, featureless figure.

“What. The. Fuck. Are. You?”

“I have many names. I’ve been called Malak al Mawt, Azrael, Sariel, Dhumavati, La Catrina. I am Death. I randomly selected you as the one I surround myself with so that I can understand the human condition. For although I guide many of your kind to the afterlife, I do not fully understand the traditions and values you impose on one another. I am here and there. There is no time and space that I do not occupy. Yet, I feel that I am both seen and not seen. I am cried about, and forgotten about. But in all cases, I am negative.”

“You are a plague amongst my kind.”

“But why is that? I am not the one who crashed the car into you. I am not the one who robbed the coffee shop. I am not the bacterium that infected your father’s lungs.”

“But you were there. Why didn’t you stop it?”

“It’s choices. Humans make choices that impact each other. Why did that man crash his car into you? Why did the robber shoot your husband? Why did the cleaners of the ventilation system forget to clean the vents to your fathers room? I am merely a consequence of human actions.”

“You have the power to give and change people’s choices! You choose to wait in the shadows and do nothing. Why? What happens if you change whether someone dies or not?”

“Nothing, time in this instance is shifted like another vector.”

“So why not give me that choice?”

Death thought about this for a while. “Okay. I will give you a choice. I will revive the ones you love. But, like your father said, there’s always a catch.”

“What’s the catch?”

“I will revive your father and husband, and only them. But in your eyes they will embody similar looking toys to what your son Timothy plays with. To every other person, they will look normal.”

“What are they going to look like?”

Death pointed to the toys on the floor. “They will resemble stuffed animals, like those penguins in front of you.”

Dr. Dawkins thought about this for a few moments. She really missed her husband and father. At least to everyone else they would look like normal people. It would just seem rather odd to be talking to a toy.

“Do you let them go, or make them live again?” Death asked.

“I choose to make them live again.”

“So be it.”

Death expanded and filled the room, engulfing Dr. Dawkins in white light to the point where she could not hold open her eyes anymore. After a few minutes, the brightness ceased and she slowly began opening her eyes again.

Rachael woke up in a hospital bed. To her right, there was an IV bag that dripped fluids into a tube connect to her arm. Subtle beeps! were heard that monitored her heart rate, which was calm. Her right hand was completely scarred with small scratches. Her left leg had been propped up and was sealed in a large cast. On the far left wall next to the entrance of the room was Timothy and her mother, sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on uncomfortable waiting room chairs. She had her own private room, usually given to patients in the intensive care unit.

Surrounding the two was a giant, stuffed penguin and monkey, along with various other stuffed animals; an elephant, a giraffe, and a bear.

A large white board was on the wall in front of her. Scribbles of red marker listed various medications and times for check-ups by the doctor and nurses. At the top of the board wrote “Reconstructive Surgery”. Rachael brought her left hand to her face, but was met with gauze bandaging.

“Oh god, no…” Rachael pleaded.

This woke up her mother, who shook Timothy awake as well. The penguin and the monkey also opened their eyes and stretched. They all walked over to the hospital bed.

“Mom!” Timothy yelled.

“No no no, my face,” Rachael whispered. Her voice was strained.

“Oh honey, don’t move too much,” her mother said.

“What happened? How long have I been out?”

“About two days,” her father said, reaching out his wing to her hand. “It was one hell of a crash. Police say you ran a red light and collided with another vehicle who hit you from the left side. Your vehicle rolled into a ditch.”

“Oh my god. I must’ve forgot to put my lights on.”

“I don’t think that would have saved you,” her husband said, hanging upside-down from the heart rate monitor.”

“And the driver of the other car?”

“He was in critical condition, just like you. He passed earlier this morning,” her mother said.

Rachael closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“I’m happy you’re alive mom,” Timothy said after a quiet pause.

“I’m happy to see you, honey,” Rachael said, “and all of you as well.”

_____

“Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
- Steve Jobs

D.E.C.K.
by Kevin Mercurio

Foreshadow
by Kevin Mercurio

We emerged from a hole in the ground next to my house and walked inside the adjacent building. When I was seated, he removed my restraints. I still couldn’t believe who was standing in front of me.

I glanced at walls on either side of us, ravaged by the elements. On the far wall, a theatrical stage loomed in the dim lighting, blue curtains partly draped, while a lighting rod hung crookedly from the ceiling fixtures. Bleachers to my left were empty, though posters of Spirit Weeks and sports banners scattered across seats. At my feet, the floor was a dark brown, lines of various colours turned at sharp corners and curved, defining boundaries.

“Where have you brought me?” I asked.

“Not where, but when. The future.”

I struggle to free myself and wind up kicking over the table between us, sending its items flying. He tightens my restraints.

I realized we were situated in the middle of my school’s gymnasium, only divided by a solid black line at half court. I turned my gaze back at him. He looked so, focused. He was bald, slight beard running from side-to-side. There was a scar running along his right ear, like he had been through some combat. He was dressed professionally in grey suit jacket with a green handkerchief folded in the front pocket, overtop a pastel-green collar shirt neatly buttoned and tucked into his matching grey pants. Shoes were polished and pointed, the vintage black reflecting the minute amount of light.

On the table setup, there were bandages, rubbing alcohol and a mirror. Also placed behind this medical collection were four rectangular black boxes of various sizes, as polished and reflective as my captor’s shoes.

I turned my gaze back at the man in front of me. I couldn’t get over his look of determination. It was menacing, but I didn’t feel like I was in danger. His eyes pierced through mine like he had seen them before, like I had seen them before. They were the familiar hazel-green eyes that I saw every morning when getting ready for school. They were my eyes.

“What do you mean, the future?” I asked.

“Well technically that isn’t correct. This is my present time. Your future hasn’t happened yet.”

“Who are you?”

“You already know the answer to that question.”

He reached into his jacket and took out a pocket watch. On the back of it were engravings of a man struggling to carry a large sphere. It was Atlas, a titan of Greek mythology, who Zeus condemned to hold the sky on his shoulders. This was apparently a fitting punishment for the Titanomachy, a 10-year war that finally ended with victory for the Olympians. The watch itself was extremely peculiar, with three wounded clocks.

“Past, present and future?” I asked.

“Not yours, but mine.”

“Why did you bring me here?”

“I had to. I sat in that exact seat 36 years ago.”

“So this has already happened?”

“Not for you. Not yet.”

It must have been nightfall, as windows lining the tops of the walls were dark. You could hear the the wind bellowing, pushing on branches from old, adjacent trees which tapped the pane from the outside. Broken glass littered the gymnasium floor beneath.

“During our time together today, I will have to lie to you once.”

“Why did you tell me that? It’s not like I know what the hell is even going on right now.”

“Each moment is a specific state of reality. Driving it forward to the next of an infinite series of states is what we call the time dimension. Therefore, in order for things to work out as happened, things need to be in place to perform their duty at each moment leading to a function.”

I looked at him, puzzled. Is it that simple? The idea of supplanting a seed in one’s mind to grow and foster seemed too… random. To what amount of control could a warning lead to the desired outcome of biological interactions? Of chemical reactions?

I pressed further, “So I am here in order to ensure things happen the way they should? The way it has already happened in your past?”

“On the contrary. We are here to change what has happened.”

The more I pressed the more confused I became. If he was really who I think he is, he must have lost his ability to communicate sensibly. “Then why are you just repeating what has happened previously? With bringing me here 36 years later? With telling me that you are going to lie to me?”

“Remember, it’s about function. Think of time as a magician who presents you a series of options during a performance. Despite this opportunity of selection, our ability to affect the performance is limited, just like our ability to affect the time dimension. I’m simply choosing the fastest route to an origin moment.”

“Origin moment? What’s that?”

“An origin moment is when the state of reality can go one of two ways, like a fork in a path. Left or right. This happens every 36 years.”

This was madness. It was almost like he was speaking in a different language. At the time, I could just barely follow the flow of his words. But his eyes… His eyes never lost that sense of determination, that focus. He kept ruthless eye contact as he spoke.

“There are things that if changed, do not impact function. For example, I noticed that you were staring at the scar on my right ear. I obtained this scar in an accident involving a workplace explosion that sent shrapnel in all directions. The one before me cut himself when he was just a child. It was the same mark. It was not part of an origin moment.”

“So functions can only change at origin moments? What makes you so sure this is an origin moment?”

“Because that’s what my captor told me 36 years ago, and his captor before that. We all thought we had changed the course of time. Everything that my captor so desperately wanted to change happened nonetheless. We were unsuccessful.”

“What happened? What did he want to change?”

“The same thing I want change, and the same thing you will want to change as well.”

I remembered what I was doing before being abducted. I was working on my town’s annual Science Fair project with my twin brother. We had chosen to showcase time dilation, specifically the relative time experienced by an observer on Earth to another person near a supermassive object like a black hole. This concept can be predicted by Albert Einstein’s field equations first published back in 1915. The closer you are to an object with a large gravitational force, the slower time passes for you relative to a person farther away from said object, or vice versa, the faster time passes for the person farther away from said object relative to you.

“About 100 years ago, scientists used the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, to detect gravitational waves produced by the collision of two black holes occurring 1.5 billion years ago. Relative to the age of the Earth at 4.5 billion years old, that’s quite recent. Researchers optimized this method of gravitational wave detection and used it to observe the universe in ways we never thought possible. We were able to distinguish black holes all over the night sky, supernovas of stars hundreds of times the size of our own sun, neutron stars spinning at unthinkable speeds. Basically anything that had massive gravitational forces. We contemplated how time would be experienced at these regions of the universe. We wanted to experiment.”

“You sent probes to these regions in space?”

“Worse. We attempted to create our own dense objects.”

“That’s impossible. Even if you collapsed the Earth to the size of a basketball, that still would not be enough to create a black hole.”

“It was theorized that powerful particle accelerators could achieve this feat. Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, for example, became more and more sophisticated, pumping enough energy for particles to collide into each other at just under the speed of light. We started detecting gravitational waves at these sites, at these particle accelerators. Then, we started detecting gravitational waves at specific places on Earth every 36 years.”

“The origin moments.”

“Yes. And it took the brilliant mind of one individual to pinpoint exactly when these events occurred. This same brilliant mind later invented a machine that harnesses gravity to bend spacetime into a closed timelike curve. It was us. It was you.”

I looked at him blankly. Us? Me? How could I have invented such advanced technology? At this time, I was just an ordinary high school student, not even at the top of his physics class. My brother was the real genius in the family. He had such bad allergies that he stayed inside and read textbooks. I much preferred to play in the treehouse overlooking the construction of the new school. It always seemed like we were similar intellectually, but also physically opposite. There was still one thing I didn’t understand.

“What happened to the world?”

“There was a fatal flaw in the first prototype. The moment you left travelling into the future, you produced a micro black hole that destroyed 25% of the planet in an instant before it evaporated. Civilization crumbled and the world plunged into chaos.”

“So why don’t you just kill me?”

“We tried that. However your disappearance brings motivation to your brother to dedicate himself to similar work and build the same machine. He would often go to your treehouse to study, hoping you would one day return.”

“Okay, I could just do something else with my life instead.”

“We tried that as well. No matter what you end up doing in life, your actions still lead your brother to create the machine.”

“Then why are we here?”

“Because we are going to finally settle this once and for all using randomness.”

My captor pulled the table with medical supplies and the four black rectangular boxes. He pushed the bandages to the side and opened the smallest box on my left. Inside the box was a coin. He put the coin on top of his right thumb and flipped it in the air.

“Call it, head or tails.”

“Does it really matter? Do you already know what it will be?”

“I only know what it was.”

“Heads,”

He removed his hand covering the coin. “Tails.”

He then picked up the next box and opened it. Inside was a six-sided die. He place the die in his right hand and rolled it on the table. The die bounced and flipped three times before it settled on a three. He then picked it up and placed it in my right hand. I rolled the die. It bounced twice and settled on a six. He smiled.

“Lowest goes first.”

He picked up the remaining box and opened it. This time, inside was a revolver with 2 bullets lined on the right side of the box.

“Wait, what are we doing?”

“We are settling this once and for all.”

He picks up the gun and loads one bullet into one of four chambers. He takes a deep breath and spins the cylinder as hard as he can. It rotates, ticking each time a chamber passes the hammer part of the gun. He then hands the revolver to me.

“This one particular moment had a probability of 1 out of 125,000. Shoot me. Aim for the head.”

“This is crazy. I don’t want to.”

“Shoot me or else I will kill you myself and do this cycle all over again.”

“Why do you think this will solve the problem?”

“Inside the last black box are the blueprints to the machine, with the fatal flaw fixed. We have to somehow deliver these blueprints to you in the past without directly interacting with you. How can we motivate choices such that you or your brother can create a workable machine, one that can travel through time and return back to the present without ripping the fabric of space. We can do this through occurrences that cannot possibly have been dictated by intent or motive. Randomness. Randomness cannot reveal intent or motive, it is simply chance.”

“So you expect to kill me here in the future? I thought killing me doesn’t change the past?”

“Remember it’s about function. My intention to kill you in order to change the past doesn’t change function. But if you introduce randomness to the series of events, this will change function. Either way, either I kill you and we see a difference in how your brother creates the machine, or you kill me and the process begins all over again.”

“This is insane. There must be another way.”

“Shoot me.”

I look at the revolver in my hands. It’s heavy and cold. I point it at my captor.

“Shoot.”

I pull the trigger and we hear a click.

“My turn.”

He grabs the gun out of my hands and points it at me. He pulls the trigger and we hear another click. Again, he hands me the gun.

“Why did we have to use a gun?”

“Not only does it incorporate my theory of randomness well, but if done correctly it also is the most humane way to kill someone. Now shoot me.”

I raise my arm and point the gun at him. We both can see my hand shaking. I pull the trigger and we hear click.

He takes the gun from my hand and points it at me. He paused, pointing the gun square at my forehead.

I looked once again at the posters detailing Spirit Weeks and yearly sports banners that lined the gymnasium bleachers. It was then I finally realized what he lied about.

“This isn’t the future, we’re in the past. Before my time.”

“The machine and I will time travel to where we emerged from just a few moments ago, near our treehouse beside the school, in the next hour. I must kill him in order to stop him from returning to the his present and forming the micro black hole. I’m sorry for lying to you.”

He pulled the trigger and we heard another click.

“This doesn’t make sense.”

He opened up the cylinder and showed that there was a bullet in the last chamber. Confused, he put the gun back together and aimed it back at my head.

At that moment, I tilted my chair to my right side as gunpowder ignited. The bullet just grazes my left ear. Adrenaline overpowers the pain of my injury as I flip the table at him. The table bounces off his head and pushes him off his chair, hitting the ground hard. His once shiny black shoes now painted with droplets of blood, his professional grey suit jacket ripped in various spots and pastel-green collar shirt untucked from his matching grey pants.

Freed from the impact to the ground, I walked over to him and grabbed the gun from his side. He’s unconscious. I use my restraints to tie him to the chair and put the table back upright. I set the four rectangular black boxes back on the table next to the medical collection, which I used to aid the scar on my ear. I grabbed the 4th box containing the blueprints and walked towards the gymnasium exit. I was careful not to step on broken window glass scattered across the floor.

I walked to where my old treehouse was. My grandfather built it for my dad when he was younger, and he passed it on to my brother and I with a few modern renovations. I placed the black box at the base of the tree and sat down, awaiting my arrival with the machine. But something felt off.

I held my aching left ear and groaned. All of a sudden, in a flash of light, a man appeared sitting in a steampunk-like machine. I couldn’t believe who was standing in front of me. He emerged from the hole in the ground next to my house and walked inside the adjacent building.

_____

“Space and time are modes in which we think, not conditions in which we exist.”
- Albert Einstein

Frenzy
by Kevin Mercurio

9 Hours Before

Major Miller got ready for work just like any other day.

He showered, shaved, got dressed, ate breakfast, drank coffee, read the newspaper and took his pills. On the side of the container, it read: Nathan Miller, Sertraline, 100 mg Tablets, Take 2 a day by mouth. Major Miller smiled. He always thought that was humorous, having to specify in which orifice to place the pill.

As he does everyday before leaving the house, Major Miller picked up the picture frame by the front door for examination. The photo was of him and his wife at Corcovado Peak in Rio. It was a beautiful summer day. They were beaming with absolute joy, as it was the number one destination on their list of destinations. It was a perfect moment in time, and even then, Major Miller was able to relive that very memory. He was happy.

Major Miller took the same route to work for 15 years. Since his shift always started at 6:00am, he was always one hour ahead of the traffic. He worked in the neighbouring province just outside of his hometown. The complex was at the end of a long, beaten road, securely located deep within the nearby provincial park. For the work that was being conducted, he was surprised that there were so many houses nearby. He knew that the probability of accidents was very low, but the chance still existed. “These people know nothing,” Major Miller muttered to himself, “but that’s probably for the best. What they do is for the public good.”

Major Miller would always know he was close once the surroundings started to change. Throughout the drive, it was a gorgeous scenic route lined with extravagant cottages and tall, crisp maple trees. Many dwellings had docks, and most docks had small fishing boats floating effortlessly on the lake. The lake was breathtaking. When the entire complex stopped all operations in the summer months, Major Miller would always bring his wife and son for a picnic by the lake. The water was tepid, which to them was just right for swimming conditions. He loved those memories. It was at the end of the lake that the complex was found.

Major Miller always arrived at the entrance 15 minutes before his shift began. The entrance wasn’t what one would expect for the workings of this particular government facility. In fact, it looked like the entrance to any privately owned parking lot business. A passerby would easily mistake such a place for one, seeing as anyone could likely end up there while touring the park. There was a security guard inside the tollbooth structure on the right-side of the entrance, with the arm sticking across to the left. Those with the right pass on their front mirror automatically lifted the gate when stopped in the designated sensor area. Otherwise, the guard would aid travellers in rerouting their journey. Just behind the gate, there was a big sign with the words, “AREA CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE”. Major Miller smiled. He always thought that was humorous, pretending the area would open to the public at some point in time.

He parked his car in his appointed space labeled: Maj. N. Miller, and walked inside the complex. The structure looked like a tarnished-metal cube from the outside, with only three floors. There was a window in the top-left quadrant of the front side, the only window of the complex. Upon entry, there were three security stations one must pass in order to gain access into the complex. Since he had been working in the facility for many years, Major Miller was well recognized. The first security guard at the primary station always unlocked the first set of doors after a hand shake and a brief morning greeting. The secondary station was even easier. All he had to do was scan his identification card on the wall, which would unlock and open the adjacent steel doors. The last station was always the longest. For maximum security, the wall module would audibly ask you to provide another source of identification. However, it would always change. One day it could be to scan your iris. Another day it could ask for a fingerprint, or a strand of hair. That day, with a scan of his right eye, Major Miller was inside, and took the elevator to the top floor.

Major Miller’s duty was to sit in front of the only laboratory on the floor and grant access to only certain personnel. It was the only productive room on the floor, as most rooms were devoid of any materials. Many scientists and officials worked in the complex, yet only six individuals were allowed access to the third-floor laboratory. Dr. Mathers was the primary investigator and managed the lab’s operations. He had employed three senior scientists: Dr. Lee, Dr. Harper and Dr. Tankov. The remaining personnel were the Department Vice-Leader (DVL), Mr. Nicholson, and Major Miller’s commanding officer, Colonel Jones.

It was around the beginning of his shift, that Major Miller noticed his watch was missing. He likely had forgotten it at home. “That’s odd.” He thought. Though, he brushed the issue aside. Major Miller was ready to start the day.

Except the day was no regular kind of day for Major Miller. Up until then, Major Miller had been doing the same routine for 15 years. Major Miller would get up, get to work, get to his desk outside the third floor laboratory of the complex, get home and sleep. What Major Miller did not know, and could not have known, was that something terrible was going to happen to him.


7 Hours Before

Everyone arrived on schedule. First was Dr. Mathers. He arrived in his regular work attire: a lab coat surrounding a crude sweater-vest surrounding a yellow shirt, and brown corduroy pants. Major Miller was slightly appalled by him, as his physical proportions were unusual for a man his size. He was a stocky, tall man; had a small round head with patchy, brown hair combed to his left side. He carried a black briefcase in one hand and a large coffee thermos in the other. Major Miller registered him upon his arrival, and Dr. Mathers went inside to begin work.

Second was Dr. Lee. She arrived dressed in one of her usual patterned skirts. Major Miller admired the amount of colour the woman always wore. So lively. She was a thin mother of two children, medium height, and had long, black hair with auburn-highlighted tips. Dr. Lee was tired. She was tending to her daughter who was sick with the stomach flu. He listened to her nightly experience and sympathized, though he knew the flu was very infectious and kept a safe distance. Major Miller registered her in the database, and Dr. Lee went inside to begin work.

Dr. Harper and Dr. Tankov arrived together. The two would always carpool to work on Mondays. Dr. Harper was an active runner, wore glasses, had a strong, skinny build and long, dirty-blonde hair. Dr. Tankov was an outdoorsman; large physique, thick, bushy beard lining his sides and around his mouth. When exiting the elevator, Major Miller noticed they were always giggling to one another. They were usually in mid-conversation upon registration, talking that day about the elderly man on the news who crossed the freeway at peak rush hour, completely oblivious to the traffic. The reporter had speculated he had dementia, or possibly some form of a dangerous illness. Major Miller laughed too, and Dr. Harper and Dr. Tankov went inside to begin work.

It was the beginning of the fall quarter and operations at the complex were just resuming. That was why Major Miller was surprised to see, nearing two hours into his shift, exiting the elevator at the end of the hall that led to the third-floor laboratory, was Mr. Nicholson and Colonel Jones. Mr. Nicholson wore his plain white-collar shirt and red tie striped with purple diagonal lines. He looked distracted, eyebrows raised passed where his dark-brown hairline would have been decades ago. He was furrowing his thick moustache with his bottom lip, listening to Colonel Jones as they began approaching the laboratory. Colonel Jones was in full uniform, flashy medals pinned on the right side of his jacket, recognizing his demonstration of honour, sacrifice, and leadership. He was speaking sternly to Mr. Nicholson, and stopped the conversation once they reached Major Miller. Major Miller registered them in the database, and Mr. Nicholson and Colonel Jones went inside.

“Strange that Colonel Jones is here so early in the quarter,” he thought. “They must have changed the time for our evaluations from last year.”

Several minutes later, there were loud sounds of scraping metal followed by an explosion. Major Miller knew the protocol and rushed inside. Upon entry into the lab, he was able to immediately spot the accident. Most labs are packed with essential, though dangerous, types of equipment. Centrifuges come in various sizes and are able to subject samples to high levels of centrifugal force for separation purposes. All personnel were at the back corner of the room, where the interior of the large centrifuge was exposed, and contents scattered in all directions. Sparks from the machine caught nearby documents, producing a fire. Dr. Mathers was seen putting out the flames, as Dr. Lee tried, to the best of her ability, clearing debris, samples and equipment from the wreckage. On their left, Dr. Harper sat in a chair with a bleeding arm, tended to by Dr. Tankov and Mr. Nicholson. Upon starting the machine, the samples were not balanced and caused the rotor to disengage from the core.
It took one look from Colonel Jones. Major Miller turned and inputted the 6-digit passcode that locked the door, then grabbed the nearby face masks and gloves.


5 Hours Before

It did not take long for the rest of the complex to evacuate. The 6-digit code, specific for Contamination Level 6 situations, sounded the emergency alarm for a Code Blue. A Code Blue was not frequent at the complex, but not uncommon either. About two occur every year, with one rarely ever being truly harmful. However in this case, the circumstances were different. Only the third-floor laboratory contained biological entities capable of a Contamination Level 6 situation.

There were several steps outlined in the Advanced Safety Procedures Section of the employee handbook that were required to be followed. All personnel inside the laboratory at the time of the incident must remain quarantined and sealed within the laboratory until further instructed. Face masks and gloves, located at the first-aid station directly adjacent to the entranceway, must be immediately put on until further instructed. Most importantly, all personnel directly affected by the incident, such that an open wound was produced, must be further quarantined in another dwelling separate from the rest of the group until further instructed. Lastly, all biological entities in open areas must be cleaned with the appropriate biohazard disposal kit located next to the first-aid station.

Major Miller tried recalling the last time this occurred. It happened 20 years ago, after the “Amerithrax” incidents. Shortly after the September 11th attacks, many American news outlets and two politicians received letters containing anthrax spores. Over 20 people were affected, resulting in five deaths overall. There was speculation from media sources that the United States and their NATO partners had been working against UN orders by devising biological weapons for future retaliation. Even though the bacterium that causes anthrax, Bacillus anthracis, was already such a lethal threat, NATO wanted something more powerful.

Research in virology began surging in the following years. A virus was rumoured to be devised, dubbed T-22.9182119 or T-22 for short. It had the virulence of the influenza virus with the symptoms of the rabies virus for maximum propagation through the enemy population. T-22 was first synthesized in Dr. Bruce Ivins’ lab in Maryland, until he was put under investigation for the attacks. The strain was transferred to the third-floor laboratory of the Bio-Canadian Defence Complex (BCDC). The spill occurred when, during a late night experiment, the residing scientist carelessly knocked over several viral stocks. Upon hitting the alarm, the complex was surrounded with biohazard teams from the Royal Canadian Mountie Police and Health Canada. Very little word got out to the general public about the incident. All files that recorded the incident were given high-level confidential status.

The reaction was no different. Major Miller was able to see, out the window of the laboratory, police trucks and black government vehicles coming to the front entrance of the complex. He could hear a helicopter in the distance, and even against the blaring alarm, he could hear the tactical unit outside the laboratory.
It had been two hours since the centrifuge explosion. Everyone in the lab was calmly sitting quietly around the room, with the exception of Dr. Mathers and Dr. Harper. Dr. Mathers was extremely disgruntled over the circumstances and took residence in his office on the left side of the laboratory, to curse in privacy. Dr. Harper, due to the Advanced Safety Procedures Section of the employee handbook, was locked away in the room on the opposite side, closest to the centrifuge. Dr. Harper was becoming extremely agitated and frightened. There were many samples in the centrifuge, and all were dormant samples. Though, unknown at the time, a bottle that contained T-22.9182119 may well have been one of the samples, and an open wound would have led to possible infection and multiplication. Dr. Tankov and Colonel Jones were trying to help calm the situation, while Dr. Lee and Mr. Nicholson were assessing the damages and discussing the repercussions of the ongoing projects.
Dr. Mathers appeared, cursing away and holding his office television. After plugging the device, he flipped to the breaking news story. On the screen was a reporter from Wolffe News, standing outside the complex behind the police perimeter.

“…the building seen here. Now our sources have explained that the situation is of unprecedented scale. The BCDC houses many of the most deadly biological specimen known to existence. Through leaked documents posted online, we now know of government involvement on the development of bacterial and viral strains to be used in bioweapon manufacturing. Of these weapons, a virus dubbed T-22.9182119, T-22 for short, was one of many specimen leaked into the open building through an equipment malfunction. Symptoms of this virus include confusion, aggressive behaviour, loss of consciousness, and even death.” He paused. “No word yet on the health of those affected, however we do know that at least six people have been left quarantined on the third-floor of the complex. What we can expect in the short while are potential after-effects, and possible fatalities due to the outbreak of T-22. More from our sources earlier this morning said that this was a long time coming, as many officials…”

Major Miller turned off the monitor, and all that was heard was the helicopter buzzing overhead and the quiet sobbing of Dr. Harper.


3 Hours Before

The circumstances only became worse.

Despite the suggestion from Major Miller, everyone continued to observe the television for further developments. News outlets showed 360° footage of the complex from their helicopters. Cameras were aimed into the lone window, trying to glimpse the scene. However, it was located across from where the group was situated, and nothing could be seen.

Anchors and reporters continued to converse about the lethality of the T-22 virus. Innovative graphics and holograms were constructed to illustrate the behaviour of the virus once infection of an individual had taken place. They explained that there were two phases that the virus went through to take complete control of the host. The first phase was selection. The binding of the virus (showed as a gigantic, black sphere with acute spikes) was truly the most devious idea of the multinational project. Like the flu, certain binding proteins were incorporated on the surface of T-22 so that the virus can attach to the respiratory tract and begin infection. The second phase was destruction. From there, the virus can infiltrate the nervous system to begin multiplying in vast quantities (showed as an exponentially increasing abyss of darkness in the brain), and travel to other organs of the body (showed as organs melting into green goo). Further photos and videos of animals, as well as humans, infected with the rabies virus were shown for a better understanding of possible consequences due to the alleged outbreak at the complex.

“What the hell is T-22? Mathers, do you know anything about this? And those experiments are decades old — of animals being infected with rabies.” Dr. Lee voiced, though ruffled by her face mask.

Major Miller noticed that the ones being the most attentive to the news story were Dr. Tankov, Mr. Nicholson and Colonel Jones.

Dr. Tankov’s expression was more so of worry and concern than of fear. He remained seated by the door of the room that held Dr. Harper, a bit of a distance from the rest of the group but still within audible range of the news story. Major Miller could overhear him comforting Dr. Harper, reassuring that it was only a matter of time until the quarantine was concluded.

Mr. Nicholson was gazing questioningly as the reporters described how the virus acted within our bodies. He was squinting, and finally put on his glasses, to observe the videos and graphics on the screen. Major Miller noticed one of his bushy eyebrows up in a state of utter confusion.

But Major Miller was more interested in Colonel Jones’ demeanour, and watched him closely. He was still upright in the usual soldier stance. His countenance was emotionless, impassive to the severity of what was put into light. This was usual for military personnel, especially one as decorated as Colonel Jones. Though it was not his face that Major Miller was intrigued by. It was his saluting hand, trembling. It reminded Major Miller of his wife, who often had hand tremors in the years leading up to her death. He missed her immensely.

There was some shouting, and suddenly loud crashing was heard from Dr. Harper’s room. Dr. Tankov was seen poised, arms stretched out to the door, attempting to keep it from bursting open.

“Please Taylor, please be calm,” Dr. Tankov pleaded. "The quarantine should be finished soon.”

“I need medical attention,” Dr. Harper exclaimed. “I’ve lost a lot of blood and I’m beginning to feel nauseous and light-headed. You know we don’t work with dangerous viruses without proper precautions and preparation. I loaded the centrifuge and saw no trace of that T-22 virus. This T-22 that they speak of is not even a part of our stocks. I was not infected.”

“I understand. But the possibility is still there. Until we figure out more on what they’ve shown, let’s just be on the safe side. They’re going to let us all out soon. They have to.”

“I’m having difficulty breathing. I’m hyperventilating in this small room. Get me out!” More banging was heard, that time much more aggressive.

“Please, enough, you’re going to make matters worse.”

And with a loud boom!, the door blew open with a hard kick, sending Dr. Tankov flying onto the nearest lab bench. Major Miller watched as Colonel Jones, almost immediately, ran and restrained Dr. Harper to the ground. He grabbed Dr. Harper’s injured arm, and began twisting them behind his back. Dr. Harper cried out in pain. Noticing this, Dr. Tankov grabbed Colonel Jones and threw him to the side. It did not take long for Colonel Jones to roll over top of Dr. Tankov and began pummelling him with his fist.

“Just don’t hurt him!” Dr. Tankov begged, amid the beating.

“I knew you two faggots had something going on. Dr. Harper is infected with that virus.” As he said this, Colonel Jones took out a bottle labelled: T2-phage. “I found this next to the centrifuge, doctor. The consequences are a threat to national security. He cannot leave this place.”

Major Miller and the others were witnessing the entire scene, completely frozen in a state of shock. Meanwhile, Dr. Harper had reached the entrance to the lab and was inputting the door code to escape. With a loud beep! and a green light, the door unlocked and slowly began opening.

“He’s not infected! No one works with whatever the hell T-22 is! They were showing animals and humans with rabies!” Dr. Lee protested.

“Miller, grab him before he escapes!” Colonel Jones barked.

Major Miller thought about the news story. He thought about the possibility of it spreading and infecting him, his family and his friends. He thought about the trip to Corcovado Peak with his wife, and how they revisited the church of their wedding in Rio. He looked down at his wrist, where his watch would have been, the watch his son bought him the year he threw him out of the house. He was furious at him after he caught him and his partner once he got home from work at the complex. He did all this in a split second, right before he tackled Dr. Harper to the ground and inputted the six digits to close and lock the door.

The Code Blue alarm was blaring ferociously.

Colonel Jones stood up. “No one leaves this lab, not yet.”


0 Hours Before

In the hours that followed, Colonel Jones restored order by instructing everyone to remain in one corner of the room, furthest from the wreckage. Since the door was unhinged from the wall, and no other room was available for a secondary quarantine, Dr. Harper sat in his own space a distance away from everyone else. Dr. Tankov, as hardy and masculine as he looked, was submissive to what Colonel Jones commanded. Dr. Lee insisted that the news story was false, and that no T-22 virus was ever transferred or studied here. Dr. Mathers sat on a stool and faced the wall, cursing away. Mr. Nicholson remained silent and complied to what was ordered of him.

Major Miller stood in front of the group, alongside Colonel Jones, who watched over the others intensely. Major Miller realized why he was such a decorated serviceman. No one would ever dare cross or disobey his direction for fear of certain unwanted consequences.

The television stayed plugged and tuned in to the news story. At that time, the anchors, seeming to prolong coverage time before new developments came from their reporters or sources, speculated on the catastrophic outcomes of large-scale outbreaks. They showed how one individual that was able to slip through a quarantine could infect the entire population of a small, nearby town within hours (shown as an increasingly large mob of rabid human corpses), and large cities within days. A graphic was displayed, showing the globe with menacing skulls popping up in different continents, as the world became a dark red sphere.

“This may be the end of times,” the anchor stated.

At that moment, Dr. Mathers jumped up and smashed the television set with his stool. He could not endure how ridiculous they were making his situation. The television came down from the lab bench and smashed on to the floor, becoming its individual components. Colonel Jones grabbed Dr. Mathers into a headlock, intended to deprive him of oxygen until he subsided. Dr. Lee attempted to stop the mayhem, but was easily kicked aside by Colonel Jones. Major Miller grabbed her and restrained her, with the intention to protect her from the kerfuffle. Dr. Tankov and Dr. Harper remained seated, still injured from the last confrontation with Colonel Jones.

Dr. Mathers was able to wriggle free due to his disproportionate head, but was taken down. With his free hand, Colonel Jones felt around the floor for a weapon, and grabbed a large piece of glass from the broken television screen.

“Help him!” Dr. Lee implored. “He’s going to kill him!”

Major Miller noticed the razor-sharp glass in Colonel Jones’ left hand. He pushed Dr. Lee to the side and lurched forward, pouncing on the raised arm that possessed the weapon. He slipped on his footing, and collided with the two on the floor. Colonel Jones pounded his empty hand into Dr. Mather’s chest. He looked to Major Miller, collapsed at his side, with the piece of glass pierced through his upper abdomen.

“Enough,” Mr. Nicholson declared. “The experiment is now over.”

Everyone stopped and looked at Mr. Nicholson, now standing over the open entranceway of the laboratory. Two government officials stepped inside, hoisted Major Miller off the ground, and carried him out of the laboratory.

“You have all been a part of a multi-government experiment.”

Major Miller noticed the blaring of the alarm had ceased. He looked at each of the men in suits at his sides.

“The experiment was to study the behaviour of human subjects and the influence of the media. We have been quarantined here for seven hours now, and I believe we have all the data we need.”

Major Miller passed by the tactical unit outside the laboratory. It was not a tactical unit at all, but rather also men in suits. He looked at his watch. It was 3:00 pm. His vision was becoming blurry.

“We wanted subjects that have the highest status of their field. Which is why we chose this group to perform the experiment.”

Major Miller was carried down the hall to the elevators. He passed by the once empty rooms, now filled with people, desks, cameras and green screens.

“We would never be able to get the approval from the ethics board, as our study conflicts with the statutes of the Belmont Report. We knew the negative impact it would cause on the subjects, and the expenses that may be lost in such an environment as this. But the benefits substantially outweigh the costs. It was for the public good.”

Major Miller thought about the residents that lined the the long, beaten road towards the complex. He thought about his family and friends, the people of his country, and the people around the world.

“We specifically wanted to observe the amount of conflict that could be stirred within rational people; ways we can manipulate and turn people irrational. You are all the country’s leading scientific and military personnel.”

Major Miller passed by the security guard at the front entrance. He was carried outside towards the nearest ambulance. He looked in the distance, and saw a crowd of people dissipating, heading back to their vehicles.

“Essentially, we wanted to research the inception and control of mass hysteria.”

Major Miller looked overhead, and saw the helicopters flying away.

“We believed that we could instil fear by simplifying scientific research; choosing key words and images, thereby actually shrouding certain incidents in complexity and keeping viewers glued to the sources. This increases the negativity towards said incidents exponentially. This we’ve known for a while now; how news outlets take small occurrences and blow them out of proportion for viewership, and exploiting people’s own desires and prejudices against them. This works on most people, like the general public. After 9/11 and the Amerithrax attacks, we at NATO wanted something more powerful than a biological weapon: a psychological weapon. But it wouldn’t work on our enemies, no, we would need it to work on our citizens, particularly those highly-regarded citizens that are idolized and looked towards for leadership. We were having problems with manipulating them, but then we discovered the most essential factor. Time.”

Major Miller was carried onto an ambulance and placed on a stretcher. He tried to open his eyes. He was starting to feel warm.

“The media is so easily accessible to most citizens of their country. When outbreaks occur, what rational people seem to lose track of is time. The time it takes a virus to infect a person, perhaps a friend or family member. The time an infected person can travel from one country to another. The time it takes for an infected person to infect a town, a city, a country. It is not instantaneous. This can take years, and even with the most infectious biological organisms, the country’s health officials can easily quarantine and subdue an outbreak before large-scale infections can occur. This is the reality. Do you question how quickly the media obtains their information, and delivers it to the public without review? Do you not question the speculation of a potential global pandemic happening within hours? Do you not question the language they use, and the graphics they simulate, to articulate their rhetoric? Rational people begin to get inundated. They do not stop to think, but instead absorb as much information as they can and react.” He paused. “We need to protect our nations from devastation. This is how we will obtain overwhelming support for anything we wish to pursue, like the obliteration of our enemies.”

Major Miller was whisked away in an ambulance to the nearest hospital.

“T-22 does not exist. There is no such thing as an influenza and rabies hybrid-virus. Colonel, that bottle you hold contains a harmless virus that only infects bacteria. You did not listen to the the experts in the room, pleading for you to stop and listen. This is what we were expecting. This is what we were hoping. And this is what we have seen.”

Major Miller lost consciousness halfway to the hospital.

“This study is under high-level confidential status. If you inform anyone, you will be killed.” Mr. Nicholson allowed other men in suits to enter the laboratory. “Those who are unharmed, you may now leave.”


6 Days Later

In the days that followed, many of the scientists resigned from their positions at the BCDC. Dr. Harper and Dr. Tankov bought a house in Vancouver and took up health research at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Lee left science altogether and chose to stay at home to spend time with her family. The only one that stayed was Dr. Mathers, who remained as the principal investigator on the third-floor laboratory at the BCDC.

The whereabouts of Colonel Jones were unknown for quite some time after the incident. It wasn’t until he was arrested for driving under the influence that his name was observed by the others. The news outlets depicted Colonel Jones as a once patriotic hero, now fallen to the depths of the scum of society. A criminal.

Major Miller was released from the hospital six days later. He returned to work, to his desk outside the third-floor laboratory of the BCDC. Prior to his returning shift, Major Miller’s morning routine remained the same: he showered, shaved, got dressed, ate breakfast, drank coffee, read the newspaper, took his pills, examined the photo frame, drove the same route to work, arrived 15 minutes early, parked in his space, shook the security guard’s hand, scanned his identification card, scanned his right eye, rode the elevator and walked down the hall to sit at his desk in front of the third-floor laboratory. On his desk was a new list of certain personnel in which he was to grant access into the laboratory. Everyone arrived on schedule, except the only individual Major Miller recognized was Dr. Mathers.

Mr. Nicholson came by late in the afternoon to welcome Major Miller on his return to the BCDC.

“I’m happy to see you here again.” Mr. Nicholson stated. “Do you remember much about last week’s incident?”

“Thank you, sir. Not exactly, I was losing consciousness after I was impaled by the glass.”

“I’m thankful that no one else was seriously injured, and that you have come back with a full recovery.” Mr. Nicholson smiled, and after a handshake, walked down the hall towards the elevators.

“That’s odd.” He thought. Though, he brushed the issue aside. Major Miller was ready for the end of the day.

_____

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
– Malcolm X

Goblin
by Kevin Mercurio

Everyday I think a theory, after working, feeling dreary,
Camping on my comfy cushions does mitigate a common chore.
Sometimes looking, often staring, much less my mind is caring;
Window light outside crept daring, right onto my dusty floor—
Particles free-float distracting, right onto my dusty floor.
Why can life be such a bore?

So easily I can recall, some youthful season in the Fall,
Coloured leaves atop trees so large, falling in piles more and more.
I remember potent freshness—a little bit pretentious;
Worry free and so rambunctious, life looked like a candy store—
Flavours to imagination, in this vibrant open store.
This then changed to something sore.

Eyelids weigh down as dimness come, frivolous be against the numb.
Get me! Oh—stand my aching legs! Stride like my younger years before.
Still, my mind continues racing, my body does no pacing;
Comfy cushions do no raging, my feet stay above the floor—
Phone is silent and not paging, my feet do not touch the floor.
Where does the time head toward?

I start the ever dreadful count, grab the couch arm as if to mount,
Please, I beg, Oh please, fill steady—of those reserves so clearly poor!
There’s a project I am wishing, to be about finishing
Yet I’m sitting like I’m fishing, staring at my dusty floor—
Three, two, one and end the countdown so to step onto the floor.
But that feels like such a chore.

I move my gaze to the wall, and raise my eyebrows taught and tall,
Self-loathing my bleak reproaching, broaching bad about boredom’s core;
What could be this endless trickle, contrary to those fickle;
Oh boy, if I had a nickel, I could buy that candy store—
Even though I want so badly to enter the candy store.
My inner fight rages war.

Creativity leaves again, during that memory back when;
Go over there and grab the pen, you fully rotten apple core.
Start deriding, providing names—which, should instigate some gains;
Angry impulses make me grasp the white paper I just tore—
Pieces flutter as I stutter asking what it is I tore.
How can I be something more?

Unconvinced of my deception, this theatrical rendition;
Escalating, motivating, but fatigue comes right through the door.
The importance is no problem, now in my heads the Goblin;
Stomping through and through head bobbin’, dirtying my dusty floor—
Climbing my elevated leg, just above my dusty floor.
“It’s you, from when I was four.”

This ugly creature’s foul smell, even horror stories pray tell,
It’s ravaged skin green, peeled and charred, as if picked from mythical lore.
“Have not seen you in a while. Have you not changed your style;—
Nasty, wretched, oh so vile, of which I do not adore—
Cast your reasons for your presence of which I do not adore.”
This just made the goblin roar.

Its seemingly simplistic tone, made me forget my ringing phone;
It roared and roared in all replies, just like a money hungry whore;
At its height, it could oddly stand—against the smack of my hand,
The Goblin’s strength is in demand, within terror telltale lore—
Features which I myself do need----remember from youthful lore;
Let me think about it more.

The Goblin hops upon my arm, it’s tripping, falling, lacking charm;
I smile at its failed attempt, but no one will be keeping score.
It’s determined to reach my ear, jumping, flipping, lacking fear;
“Do please tell me why you are here, I left you when I passed four—
Have I gone so mad that I have turned time back when I was four?”
The Goblin keeps climbing more.

Such absence of trepidation, an exemplar inspiration,
The imaginary Goblin who first dirtied my dusty floor;
That appeared during my distress, quickly reaching my right breast.
Suppressed? Rather really impressed, as I was about to snore—
Energy replaced lethargy, before my throat outs a snore.
At least there should be no gore.

I picked up the ghoulish Goblin, in a fit it started sloggin’;
Pinched its leg and held upside-down, it let out a ferocious roar.
I then stopped and started thinking, its crunched face madly wrinkling;
Something must have started linking, brain is fired at its core---
Some ideas flew in swifting, blood pumping from my heart’s core.
Productivity once more!

It got loose from out of my grasp, I then failed desperately to clasp,
Its slimy body reminds me of chewy gummies at the store;
What’s more, the Goblin ran a fowl, so nimble and on the prowl—
Roaring, lacking any vowels, stomping hard boots made of ore;
How is it able to carry all material of ore?
“That’s enough and never more!”

Finally made it to my ear, and I am quite surprised to hear—
Proper English was outspoken, rather than its specific roar;
“Pathetic”, it say, “writing gift? Besmirched because you’re stuck stiff,
Inert by your so lack of rift—then your cushions and your floor—
Bah ha! Your ass must be so numb, that it can bounce off the floor!”
“That’s enough and never more!”

“Writer?" It asks, “Like Edgar Poe—adapt like Amontillado?
Anabel? Helen? The Raven? Best believe that you are a bore!”
“His daunting style makes no sense! Full of syllables and dense!”
“Choppy wordplay does make it tense, and makes self-references galore;
To regurgitate his timing as to hope and write galore!”
“That’s enough and never more;—

Dare you come into existence, while provided me subsistence,
I don’t need your cruel intentions, our conversation needs no more!
Forget minimal suggestions, forget your rude transgressions,
Forget proper salutations, step off and out the front door!
Take your ugliness and shove it, push it out and through the door!”
It say, “Be it, you implore.”

So the Goblin never living, never sitting, never fitting,
In my head more than a minute before I step onto my floor,
Grab the pen of which is tilting, by flowers which are wilting.
The Goblin’s presence was guilting—why I can’t recall the store—
Young ideas vibrant wonder, colours from that candy store;—
Adaptation, ever more!

_____

“You are what you love, not what loves you.”
- Donald Kaufman (Charlie Kaufman) from Adaptation

Magnetic
by Kevin Mercurio

Look inwards, my breath
a violent wind. Noisy sounds,
jump. Never ending

crying in the crib,
hungry, a sliver of love,
crystal clear embrace.

What is essential;
internal or external
effort. Build upwards

using the basics.
Crafting life, so obsolete,
feel the magnet’s pull.

_____

“If you’re changing the world, you’re working on important things. You’re excited to get up in the morning.”
– Larry Page

Oblivion
by Kevin Mercurio

Detective Winston finally woke up.

His head was throbbing due to the blunt trauma to its side. Blood was dripping from a large gash just above his right ear. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids fluttered at the immense weight. The room was blurry, almost like a dream. However, this was certainly not a dream.

Winston lifted up his arms. They were tied tightly to whatever he was sitting in. So were his legs. He was immobilized. He was helpless. He wanted to scream.

Where am I?

He opened his mouth at an attempt to make a sound. Instead he gagged. His mouth was dry and sticky. He coughed and spit up more blood.

What happened?

The room became slightly more clear. A single lightbulb above his head lit up just a fraction of the surrounding area around his torture chair. He was in a desolated room; dark, cracked walls around him on all sides. In front of his chair was a large, stand-alone bulletin board. Centred was a piece of paper with a single word written in large font:

JUSTICE

A loud clash in the distance startled Winston. Adrenaline shot into his bloodstream and widened his pupils. He could see a bit further.

How did I get here?

He looked to his left. Beside his chair was a small table with various metallic tools, almost like he was in a hospital or dental office. There was a scalpel, glistening even against the dim lighting. There was also a pair of tweezers, a small buzzsaw, a hammer and some tubing that led to a pressurized tank on the floor.

Winston looked to his right. There was a man in a chair similar to his. Also similar was the bulletin board in front of him. However, on the man’s board was a piece of paper with a single word written in the same large font:

CONSENT

Around the poster were articles of women’s clothing: tops, bras, undergarments. He looked at the man’s face; it was hard to see but his eyes looked like they had been ripped out leaving a hallowed emptiness. He gagged again.

Try and remember. He knew there was something off about this town…

Detective Winston arrived in Main Square and took his first step out of the trolley into Defalco. The air was unusually thick and cool, almost like cold humidity, except no water was around the town for miles. It smelled of steel factory pollution, and as Winston looked at the night sky, he could see the dark fumes in the distance obscure some of the starlight. Somehow at night, they were dark enough to be observed.

Winston looked around at the three buildings that surrounded the square. They were well-kept and certainly Greek inspired, with large columns towering over the entrances. Straight ahead is what looked like the town library. In front, there was a bronze statue of an elderly man in a long-overcoat holding an open book, with his mouth frozen in the midst of conversation. The building adjacent on the left was the Defalco Court House, with another cliché statue of a blindfolded woman holding a tipped scale.

The other building encompassed two sides of the square, bending at the right-corner closest to Winston. He could not determine the purpose for it as the building was lined with scaffolding and metal fencing that covered most of the windows. A sign on the fencing read “Under Construction”, not uncommon for historic buildings like these. The entrance was intriguing because the columns that lined the front were very tight and narrow. Winston could barely notice the doorway peak around the giant centre column. How do people squeeze through for entry, Winston thought.

Towards the centre of the square, there was a man sitting on a wooden bench. Winston didn’t notice him at first, but directly made eye contact with him as soon as he discovered his presence. He was looking directly at Winston. He was an eerie looking old man, rustic and dressed in oversized, rotten clothing. But Winston was focused on the man’s face. It was disturbing. On his right side, the man’s cheek had concaved inwards, likely due to past abuse with chewing tobacco. It looked reconstructed, but just barely enough that one could see right through into his toothless mouth.

The man stood up and began walking towards Detective Winston. As the distance grew shorter, he continued to pick up pace and rose his hand to point at the building with the scaffolding and narrow entranceway. Winston, realizing the potential danger ahead, dropped his bag on the ground to retrieve his badge and gun. He loaded the gun, clicked off the safety and pointed the gun at… nothing. The man was no where to be seen.

Winston heard another rustle in the distance. Like rats in the walls, the scraping against the baseboards made his skin crawl. His eyes finally began adjusting to his surroundings. He looked at the board in front of him and realized there were photographs pinned around the white poster paper. Pictured were people being trialed in a courtroom; men who had a mild familiarity to Winston.

Suddenly, his chair cracked with a broken screw and tilted to the side, which spun him around. Behind him sat another person facing the opposite direction. It looked like a woman based on the long brown hair, which draped over the headrest in a ponytail. In front of her was another bulletin board with a piece of paper that read:

MEDICATION

Winston looked at the items surrounding her poster: bags of various powders, needles and rolled joints. Red light reflected off the blood that pooled around an inconspicuous drain behind the chair.

Think harder. He closed his eyes…

The sun was rising in the East, and Winston looked at his watch. It was 5:45am. The Mayor’s office was just a few blocks behind the Court House straight ahead. Winston had scheduled a meeting with the Mayor upon his arrival to gather preliminary information for his investigation, and was the purpose for his presence in the small town of Defalco. Perhaps the Mayor had started the day early, Winston thought.

He arrived at the Mayor’s office and opened the unlocked door. Inside, the room lit up to what seemed like a waiting area. In front of the door was the Mayor’s secretary sitting at her desk, twirling her hair and chewing on tobacco. Gertrude Russell was a middle-aged brunette with bright red lipstick and large, magnified spectacles.
“I have a meeting with Mayor O’Brien at six o’clock,” Winston explained.

“Sit,” Gertrude commanded, and nothing more. Instead, Detective Winston took the time to gaze at the frames surrounding the waiting area. There were commemorative awards and plaques from the provincial government and local institutions. There were pictures of Mayor O’Brien cutting ribbons, giving speeches to large crowds, and shaking the hands of polished businessmen in front of factories, schools and the like. He seems well respected in his political arena, Winston thought.

“The Mayor will see you now,” Gertrude stated, apathetically.

Winston walked behind Gertrude’s desk and stepped into the Mayor’s meeting room. Inside was a round table, and seated at that table was Mayor O’Brien who was reading the Defalco Tribune while enjoying his morning coffee and cigar.

“Hello Mayor O’Brien,” Winston said, “and thank you for meeting with me.”

“Detective Winston, it’s my pleasure. Welcome to Defalco,” Mayor O’Brien smiled and extended his hand to complete the introduction.

“I’m aware that there has been some disturbing murders in your town.”

“And disappearances, don’t forget the two disappearances,” Mayor O’Brien said. He took a puff from his cigar and folded the newspaper neatly on the table, giving full attention to Detective Winston. This was the first time he was able to create a full profile of Mayor O’Brien’s attributes up close.

Mayor O’Brien was a large man both in height and stature. He easily could have been seven feet tall with a waistband larger than the average doorway. He was wearing a neat, beige suit with suspenders and a typical patterned tie, overtop a pale-yellow ironed shirt. To complete the ensemble, Mayor O’Brien put on an obscure, white cowboy hat and matching boots. Winston saw he fit the profile of a typical politician from the Southern United States of America.

On the table was a folder containing a large stack of papers and photographs. Mayor O’Brien opened the folder and laid out all six photographs on the table for Winston to observe.

Winston viewed the pictures with obscure astonishment. Nothing would have prepared him for what he observed on the table. Six photographs, six stories; each with their own terror leading up to the grotesque final act.

Winston picked up the first photograph of Buddy Johnston. He was a skinny, caucasian male in his late twenties. The man was completely naked, had a shaved head with brown eyes and a charcoal beard. Along his left arm depicted tattoos of abstract shapes: dark, sharp angles that look like they could pierce into his skin. Most of his body was dirty, not because he had been found in the Prescott Forest behind the courthouse, but likely due to his career as a landscaper. Winston’s eyes were fixed on the scar under the right-side of his rib cage.

Winston picked up the second photograph in his left hand. It was of a dark, Latin-American woman named Priscilla Caldero. She worked in the town’s hospital as one of the custodians. She was also found completely naked in the middle of the soccer field behind the town’s high school. Winston immediately noticed the three scars down and across the middle of her chest. He put down the photos.

“What were these two bodies missing?” Winston inquired.

“It’s the darn-dest thing. Buddy had his entire liver removed while Ms. Caldero was missing her heart and lungs. We tried to conceal these unnecessary details from the townsfolk but word got to our local newspaper.”

Winston looked at the newspaper Mayor O’Brien was reading. The main headline read: The Defalco Surgeon Strikes Again.

“Almost like from one of them flicks from Hollywood or what-have-you. To think that there’s someone capable of such horror. I will not have it, no way, not in my town.”

“Where do the families of the deceased reside, Mayor O’Brien?”

“Well Buddy moved here alone six years ago from Windsor, down south. I remember once he said something about hating the city-life and was looking for a fresh start. This was during the beginning of my time as Mayor of Defalco. And Priscilla; she’s one of them migrants from South America. She has two sons who have long left Defalco for school or what-have-you. The others have it written in their files. None of these victims have family here.”

“It is to my knowledge that there have been some suspects for these crimes committed by the Surgeon. Do you have the files on these men?”

“I don’t personally carry such delicate files. However, our town Sheriff would gladly help you investigate further. I’ll give Sheriff Arnold a ring, assuming the police station is on your list of stops during your time in Defalco.”

“Thank you Mayor O’Brien.”

“No, thank you for seeing me so bright and early. As a fellow American, I requested the best. Do not let me down.”

As he exited the office and walked towards the door, Winston turned to give Ms. Russell a farewell.

“Welcome to Defalco,” Gertrude smiled and began typing away on her machine. Winston was able to notice that she was signing off on an email. He caught the ending of the last sentence: -in the place where there is no darkness-.

Winston started wondering about his board. He recalled the photographs of the men he had put behind bars. He cleaned up the streets that year; serving as the lead investigator for first degree murder and rape cases featuring some of the worst criminals in his country. Except these particular people were not the true perpetrators. He knew that, and yet he went on with it despite knowing the weight of that guilt pervading every moment of his life henceforth.

He heard the insertion of a key and the sound of a large metal door opening somewhere behind him. This time, heavy footsteps were approaching. He stopped breathing. Just utter silence except for the loud beating of his heart, and the footsteps. They stopped short just in-between the bulletin board and his chair. Winston could not see as he was still facing towards the woman, but could now hear the faint breathing of a presence behind him.

Keep remembering. It was his only option…

The Sheriff’s Department was just down the street from Mayor O’Brien’s office. Winston decided to walk through what appeared to be an archetypical suburban neighbourhood. Most houses were two stories high; white or a pale brick colour with pointed roofs. Each house had no numbers but instead, were distinguished by various colours painted on their front doors. Immediately beside the Mayor’s office had a purple door, followed by a blue door, two green doors, three yellow doors and finally a red door. Houses on the streets around the vicinity of the Sheriff’s Department building had red doors following a similar sequence that emanated away like a wave. It reminded Winston of the the characteristic colour changes of the autumn season.

Winston walked up the pathway leading up to the Sheriff’s building: a grey, concrete mould that was so generic it had become one of the most notable things on the street. The door was locked. Winston rang the bell and a loud buzzer prompted him to enter the premises.

A large staircase led up to Sheriff Arnold’s office, who was waiting patiently for him behind a desk. Papers stacked his working space: piles upon piles of folders within folders describing crimes and the stories of their victims.

“You must be the hot shot from America. Take a seat.”

Sheriff Arnold was a short, handsome man. He looked old, with his grey, peaked hair and scruffy beard.

Winston gazed at Sheriff Arnold’s picture frame on the desk. It was a picture of a young man in military uniform. On the wall behind the Sheriff was a plaque of various medals typically in the possession of army veterans.

“You know why I’m here,” Winston stated.

“I know why you’re here, but we don’t need your help.”

Winston noticed the creases under Sheriff Arnold’s eyes.

“Tell me what you know.”

“This is no case for young men,” Sheriff Arnold replied.

“Try me.”

“You’ve read all the documents, you’ve seen the evidence. You know as much about this case as we do.”

“What motive do you think the Surgeon has?”

“I don’t think he has a motive, son.”

“Every murder has a motive.”

Sheriff Arnold noticed Winston had been staring at the picture frame. “That’s my son. He was in the military. Billy was his name. Billy served for two full years in Afghanistan before he was finally sent home. Something about a crisis, his team said. Billy came home and couldn’t sleep for days, even weeks. He finally comes out of his room and walked into the living room to tell my wife Judith and I a story. One day they were in one of the market places outside of Kabul and a child came up to his team in a panic, saying that she had been kidnapped. The kidnappers strapped a bomb to her chest and dropped her off at the marketplace. The timer on the front read 10 minutes. Now Billy was responsible for defusing IEDs and was told get to work. Around two minutes left, Billy realizes that there is not enough time to defuse and no safe way of removing the vest. Do you know what my boy was instructed to do?” He paused. “He shot the kid in the back of the head and carried her body to an isolated location.”

“Sounds like murder,” Winston replied.

“It’s utilitarianism. The objective reason behind that decision was to save lives. But did Billy himself have his own motive? He was following orders. Like a cog in the system, soldiers are just on autopilot waiting for the finger to point so they can shoot.”

“Do you think that the Surgeon has an objective motive?”

“I think this person has an ideology that we do not fully understand.”

“I guess that’s why I’m here.”

Sheriff Arnold smiled. “I guess so. Now please, if you don’t mind, I have some work to finish.”

Winston grabbed the files prepared for him on Sheriff Arnold’s desk. He stood and began heading towards the staircase. He turned around and asked, “Would you be so kind as to point me towards Buddy Johnston’s residence? Or Priscilla Caldero’s?”

“They’re just outside. The third and sixth red doors across the street.”

“That’s an odd coincidence, don’t you think Sheriff?”

“Defalco is small, Detective,” Sheriff Arnold debated, “I’m surprised I haven’t been killed yet.”

The suspense was gut wrenching. Winston wiggled his body which gave his chair enough momentum to turn back towards his bulletin board. His eyes were still adjusting to the poorly illuminated room. However, Winston knew exactly who he was facing, and he was taken aback by surprise.

“What do you want from me?” Winston shouted.

“I told you we would meet again,” Gertrude Russell said.

“So what, has Mayor O’Brien been behind this charade the entire time?”

Gertrude smiled and responded, “Actually, the mastermind behind this is Mr. Arnold. O’Brien is just a cog in the system.”

“You don’t have to do this. I will give you whatever you want.”

Gertrude stepped back and took the four photographs pinned to his bulletin board. “James Richardson, Daryl Hunt, Kirk Bloodsworth, and Thomas Kennedy. Recognize these names?”

“No, but I remember their faces.”

“Are these evidence of a working justice system to you?”

“Look, what do you want from me? I work for the families of those victims, not those men. The evidence was there.”

Gertrude smacked him on the right side of his head. Winston groaned in agony as he watched her wipe his blood off her hand.

“The evidence was not there. Don’t you see Winston, you were assigning answers rather than looking for them. Those in power cannot just make assertions and not deal with the consequences.”

“You don’t believe I think about these men? Only took me, what, 20 years to finally remove their names, which were burning the inside of my head. I think about them every day. Every day. I sleep and I see the faces of helpless men who were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. I had to live with that.”

“You sound like a victim.”

“But what do you want from me? Are you going to harvest my pancreas and kidneys? Going to throw them up on the black market to fund your town’s door painting?”

“We are going to make this right, Winston.”

Winston exited the concrete police station and crossed the road. The closest place was Buddy’s old residence, to which he would visit first and then head to Priscilla’s afterwards. He stopped at the end of the driveway and looked at the bright red door. It was somewhat menacing and uninviting. He then turned his head to the moving van in the driveway and approached the men unloading cardboard boxes and small furniture.

“Must be the new people moving into the old Johnston residence.”

One of the men put down a large box. The sound of glass clanking echoed through the deep garage. “No, we’re just part of the moving company.”

“Who is taking up residence here? Mind if I ask the family a few questions?”
“It’s not a family, just a guy. Robert I think was his name. Eh, Andy? What’s the guy’s name? Robert somethin’?”

“Robertson probably.” Andy grumbled from the back of the van.

“Where can I find Mr. Robertson?”

“Think the guy’s in jail right now. Something about fraud and money laundering. Eh, Andy? Ain’t that right?”

“Can you get to fuckin’ work, kid?” Andy was certainly not in a good mood.

“Alright, alright. Sorry, business is booming these days. I wish I lived in one of the reds, though. It’s gorgeous inside. I’m just a cog in the system though.”

“What’s the turnover rate for these kinds of houses?”

“I’d say 6-12 months, then most of them move out of this town. Anyway, gotta run.” He picked up the large box and started walking down to the back of the garage.

Winston was perplexed. He wasn’t quite certain how to comprehend the information he had just received. In any case, he continued on and went down the street towards Priscilla’s old residence. It was indeed another “red”. He walked up the driveway which connected to a stone-laid path towards the front red door. He rang the bell and knocked. A woman opened the door.

“Hello, I am Detective Calvin Winston.” He presented his badge from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, or FBI. “I’m here for a case involving some disturbing events happening in your town, and I would like to ask you some questions.”

“Oh, okay,” the woman seemed hesitant.

“May I come in?”

“Oh, okay.”

Winston walked through the doorway and was stunned by how magnificent it looked on the inside. The floor was a marble tile, covered down the main hallway by a long, gracious rug. The walls were painted in eggshell, and on it were expensive family portraits and candid moments in time. They walked towards the living room, which was even more stunning; white leather seating and a fur rug underneath a glimmering chandelier of gold brass and crystals. The mover was certainly being honest.

“You have a lovely place, Miss…”

“Mancuso. My name is Paula Mancuso.”

“Well Paula, I will just get right to it then. Do you know about the previous resident who lived here?”

“Yes. Priscilla, she was my colleague. More than that, she was my friend.”

“And where did you two work?”

“She and I are custodians at the Defalco Hospital. We’ve known each other for quite some time now. Her sons and my oldest son are very close.”

“Are you aware of the recent events that have happened in this town?”

“Sadly yes. It was in the local newspaper. She certainly deserved better.”

“Why did you move in here after her death?”

“She put me in her will. All her material belongings were given to me, while any money in her accounts were evenly distributed to her two sons.”

“You two were that close? Just working together at the hospital? Hey, where is that anyway?”

“It is pretty well known actually. It is the L-shaped building when you enter Defalco’s main square.”

“The one under construction?”

“It’s always under construction.”

“Do you have any information, thoughts, opinions on the Defalco Surgeon?”

Paula stared at Winston. She seemed to be thinking intently. “Why yes of course. I mean it’s such a horrible thing, so much death…”

Winston began looking through Priscilla’s file. He was surprised that there were multiple pages attached. Following the first few pages detailing her murder, there was a page on recent criminal history.

“…imagine what it’s like for the victims’ families. Anyway, where are my manners, would you like something to drink?”

“Just some water please.”

Paula stood up and started to the kitchen in the adjacent room.

“And all the victim’s so far live alone in the town. Can you speak a little bit about the offences Priscilla was charged with prior to her murder?”

“What charges?” Paula shouted from the kitchen.

“Her file says she was charged with theft; stealing money from patient’s belongings at the Defalco Hospital.”

There was no response from Paula.

“There was also another accomplice in the theft, however the name was not written. Any idea who that might be?”

Winston checked his phone and noticed he had received an anonymous email. As he opened it, he had to read it several times before he was able to remember where he had read that before:

We will meet in the place where there is no darkness.
– Dr. Russell

Winston had been sitting on a chair facing away from the kitchen. His angle did not permit him to notice that Paula had grabbed a cutting board and violently smashed it on the right side of his head.

“And how will that be done?” Winston demanded.

“Have you heard of the Trolley Problem, Winston?”

“No.”

“It was modernized by the British Philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, and it goes something like this: let’s suppose you’re the conductor of a runaway train. You are alone, situated at the front of the train, in which you are capable of switching onto a new set of tracks but cannot modify the speed. Now you notice construction signs along the side of the tracks, warning to slow down the train to give enough warning for workers to move to safety. It is then that you see a fork approaching. The train is currently heading down one set of tracks leading to five workers removing debris, while the other set of tracks leads to one worker nailing down some wood. The train must go through one set of tracks, killing anyone in the way. What do you do? Do you switch tracks?”

Winston remembered the story Sheriff Arnold told him earlier that day.

“Yes, save the five workers while sacrificing the one. That’s four less lives impacted.”

“You are a man of high predictability, Winston,” Gertrude chirped. “Now let’s take another example from one of your own philosophers, Judith Thomson. Now suppose you are a surgeon with five sick patients. These patients desperately require an organ transplant immediately or they will die, and each patient requires a different organ. A traveller comes into the hospital asking for a routine check-up. It is only then you notice that this traveller is perfectly healthy. Not only that, but this particular person is a match with all five of your patients. By killing this perfectly healthy individual, you can save five other lives. Do you perform the surgeries?”

Winston thought about it for a moment. “No, because I would actively be murdering an innocent man to harvest his organs.”

“Why do your answers differ?”

“Because for one thing I am not the one killing the one worker on the tracks, the train is.”

“Sure, but you are not killing the traveler, the anaesthesia is. Some might say this is a more peaceful way to die.”

“Okay. I am diverting irrevocable destruction in one scenario versus causing destruction in the other.”

“Let’s add some factors then, Winston. These dilemmas are never black and white. How about if the other person on the tracks was a woman holding her child? How about if it was your wife? Would you then have the train kill the other five, knowing this information?”

Winston did not respond.

“Or what about if the traveller was a serial killer at large? Would this make you want to sacrifice him for the good people dying in your hospital?”

Winston was again perplexed. On one hand, ethically speaking one should not diverge the train to kill the five people just because one lone worker happened to be someone he loved. The many families destroyed due to his actions (or inactions) would be quite a weight on his shoulders. And certainly, killing the serial killer to save five good people sounded like the obvious answer, but it just didn’t seem right.

“What do you want from me…?” Winston muttered.

“I want you to be the traveller,” Gertrude explained. “I want you to be the serial killer. What ethicists fail to consider are the multiple perspectives in these scenarios. How about the traveller’s perspective? Does he know that there are five good people dying in the hospital that he can save from peacefully dying under a lethal dose of anaesthesia?”

“You want me to sacrifice myself? Why would I?”

“The Defalco Hospital is one of the most renowned transplant hospitals in North America. Many patients from around the world are sent here due to the state-of-the-art technology and surgical expertise. Being just outside of a large city, we attract a lot of criminals trying to escape the system. Hell, we even attract inconsiderate, up-and-coming criminals trying to make a quick buck for themselves and their loved ones. Sheriff Arnold was locking them up left and right, but he couldn’t keep them in forever. They were committing the same crimes over and over again, not willing to change for the better of society. That’s when they brought me in. I am part of a secret national enforcement initiative named Project Hydra. We give criminals the opportunity to attain self-retribution for their actions through capital punishment. Don’t be just a cog in the system, be the energy source that fuels the turning of the cogs.”

“This is why I am here. Because of what I did to those men?”

“The damage you did to those men is immeasurable. Years of their lives were taken from them. By you. By someone who did not have the decency to play by the rules.”

“I am not a criminal,” Winston pleaded.

“Not by the standards of our broken system. But morally speaking, you have committed atrocities of the highest caliber. You can change, and you can leave this life with the idea that your sacrifice will benefit truly good people. You can make a lasting difference of saving other lives despite destroying those others in your past.”
“How do we do that? I don’t want to make the sacrifice just yet.”

“We can situate you in one of the reds for 6-12 months, make you comfortable and ease yourself into your sacrifice.”

“What about my family? My kids?”

“They will be financially compensated not only by your life insurance, but also by partners of Project Hydra. This can be between one to five million dollars if that sacrifice is made right now. You just need to sign this form.”
Winston began sobbing uncontrollably. He was scared, but almost relieved at the guilt that would be lifted off his shoulders. He would be able to save the lives of people rather than live with those he destroyed. He would miss his family and friends, but he could not bear to see them anymore after reliving these repressed memories. He signed the form.

“I’m going to place the mask on you. You are making the morally right decision, Winston.”

As the mask was placed over his mouth, he started feeling a sense of happiness. Despite his great success, he had always lived with the harsh choices he made back in his early career as an investigator. The room was beginning to blur once again, but as he turned his head, he was caught off guard by the site of the man to his right stand up to his feet. It was Sheriff Arnold. He ripped off the skin mask.

“Could someone fix that goddamn chair? I told you that you had to turn all the screws.”

_____

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
– M. K. Ghandi

Orgulous
by Kevin Mercurio

I was invincible.

I had just finished basketball practice and was on my way to the varsity soccer match against our arch rivals, the Mepean Mountaineers. Wednesdays were volleyball and hockey. Thursdays were tennis and baseball. Fridays were all for football. I couldn’t get enough.

I hadn’t realized that I had wandered on to the track field, until I was bumped by one of the athletes during their practice.

“Watch it, kid.”

The athlete continued their stride, who seemed like they were running 100m lines. Back and forth the athlete went; from the beginning of one corner of the track, down to the next corner. I was mesmerized. Up close, the form of sprinting is, at its core, pulchritudinous. The athlete almost looked like a living vector diagram, calculating angles and forces with every movement. The skill wasn’t in the ability to score like in most sports, but the technique.

I had been staring at the athlete for some time, and it wasn’t until 10 minutes went by that the athlete grew aware.

“Would you like to try?”

“Of course.”

I joined the athlete at one of the track field corners and stood adjacent. The athlete suggested to watch first before making my first attempt. In the flash of a few seconds, the athlete had bolted down the track with such speed and finesse that I was frozen in awe. There was absolutely no way that someone could have run a line like that.

“You’re up.” The athlete shouted from down the field.

I closed my eyes and began mimicking what I had witnessed. My start consisted of shaping my legs into right and obtuse angles with an explosive push using both legs. My arms swung opposite to my legs creating perfect momentum. My forward lean began to decrease ever so slightly. When I reached the end of the line, the athlete was smiling.

“Good. Again.”

I joined the athlete, sprinting 100m lines for what seemed like hours. At first, I could feel the tension in my muscles. My lungs were almost collapsing with the excessive amounts of pressure and work. My face became numb with the lack of oxygen being utilized for energy.

It was then that I was hit with a state of awareness that I had never experienced. About an hour in, I felt zero sensation. I could see myself surpassing the athlete in each back and forth line almost effortlessly. Endorphins flooded my system to the point where I could not even consciously interpret signals produced by my fundamental senses. I was breaking the First Law of Thermodynamics.

I woke up on the side of the track field, and looked on as the athlete continued to sprint lines as if nothing had happened.

_____

“Bite off more than you can chew and then chew like hell.”
– Peter Brock

Perspicacity
by Kevin Mercurio

I moved on to biology.

I chugged the remainder of the pill bottle. Let me tell you a bit about the mixture of amphetamine salts known as Adderall. Adderall is a “study” drug. About a third of college students today have admitted to using them, including myself. Adderall makes you concentrate. Adderall makes you read your $500 textbook. Adderall gets you on the Dean’s List. Adderall gets you to graduate school.

I hadn’t realized I was taking about two 20 mg tablets every four hours. For days like mine, that’s around 10 tablets a day, or roughly a 200 mg daily dose of amphetamine, almost four times that of the usual therapeutic dose. I hadn’t slept for days. But I needed to get that project done. I needed to get those notes re-copied. I needed to apply for scholarships and bursaries.

I only started using these last week. Did you know these are as common as marijuana on college campuses? Ask your local dealer if Adderall is right for you.

I opened my laptop and turned it on. The startup noise startled my resting cat, spread lazily on the bed beside me. Her name is Bell. It’s difficult to describe her kind of breed. Good thing my laptop was on. She looks like an American Shorthair; a grey coat with light tan stripes along the legs. Bell has a medium-build, not very vocal and enjoys being independent most of the time. Except when she’s hungry of course. But hey, what organism isn’t? She is just like me. I love her.

She looked at me with her sleepy yellow eyes. They reminded me of those playground marbles, apparently given the intuitive name Cat’s Eyes. Bell always stared at you if called upon or desired something, as if to be communicating telepathically in her own strange way of conversation. I often notice that a lot of animals do that; stare at each other without uttering a word, using some other form of communication unbeknownst to us people. Maybe humans are the ones lacking in evolutionary abilities.

My stomach growled. I started to salivate thinking about pizza and wings. Meat lovers pizza, with extra bacon, and extra ground beef! Drool. Where did pizza even originate? Central and Southern Italy, apparently. And the honey garlic wings! I went downstairs to the kitchen and opened the fridge, grabbed some water and went back upstairs. I locked eyes with Bell. She was doing that thing that cats do, slightly sticking out her tongue. Is that where the saying comes from? Like a weird animal version of your father’s favourite parental activity, ”Got Your Nose”? No, that involved witches and stuff, apparently.

I was getting a bit sleepy. On my desk was a Rubik’s Cube, partially solved. I keep it around to amuse myself. It didn’t take long to teach myself to solve one. It involved setting up algorithms that I had to embed in my long-term memory through strict repetition. I thought it would be a cool party trick. I realized that in such a rambunctious atmosphere, it would only be interesting if I could solve it in 30 seconds. Blindfolded. Damn you, Kaljun Lin.
I was still dozing off. With one last look at Bell, the enormous weight of my eyelids finally outmatched my levator palpebrae superioris muscles and the room became dark.

Then it hit me. Boom. As if I was electrocuted by a lightning bolt on that cloudless night. It is hard to recount the feeling of an amphetamine high. Picture your brain as a jigsaw puzzle. All your thoughts, all your neural inputs can be represented by each jigsaw piece. The sensation would be as if finally completing that 1000-piece puzzle and observing your creation as a whole. You know everything about the puzzle: what it represents and where everything is located. Any pieces of this puzzle can be utilized at your discretion. You are omniscient to this puzzle. You are omnipotent to this puzzle. You are God.

The drug was finally kicking in. I went downstairs and made a turkey and ham sandwich, with all the fillings. I organized all the materials on my desk: pens by colour, line-paper stacked perfectly forming a thin prism, ruler parallel to the desk for underlining important points from each lesson. And the highlighters! Oh, my highlighters. One for every distinct colour of the visible-light spectrum.

I went through ten lectures in what seemed like minutes. Sixty slides per lecture. I could have explained in great detail about the organisms that lived in the Carboniferous period. I could have recalled the exact percentage of life that was exterminated in the Permian extinction. For Christ sakes, I could even have remembered how many times I used my blue highlighter (it was six, for each sub-sub-heading).

It happened at about 3:37am. I was three bites into the remaining half of my sandwich. My laptop battery percentage was at 61%. I was on slide 45 of the 11th lecture that transpired on Wednesday, November 23. I would never forget occurrences like these. Think about the most outrageous happening that could possibly happen at any moment, to happen in happenstance to when you are at your most alert. As if you knew it was going to happen. As if you were ready for when it was going to happen. You acknowledge its occurrence, ensure it gets embedded in your oddly unfinished but complete jigsaw puzzle of a brain, and begin further observations to reach a greater understanding. The scientific method.

“What are you doing?” Bell asked, nonchalantly.

If this story becomes a movie, her voice sounded pretty much like Julia Roberts. American with a hint of the south, sweet but assertive, flaunting in grandeur. I turned my head and looked at her. She was sitting up on the bed now, stretching her front legs and giving me a big yawn. Her pupils were dilated slightly, as I could tell she was slowly becoming more and more curious. Watch it little missy, you know how the saying goes…

“Curiosity does not kill the cat, by the way,” Bell said matter-of-factly. “It is the inability of the animal to contemplate about their surroundings when encountering a new situation. If curiosity killed the cat, it would certainly kill most organisms, including humans.”

I was not able to ignore her much longer. I added a piece to the goal region of my brain that stipulated the investigation of my sentient cat. I decided to push back feelings of obvious surprise, as if time was of the essence. For some reason, I felt slightly irritated.

“How long were you able to communicate with me?” I asked.

“I appreciate you disregarding the shocked phase of the matter. Since I came into your captivity,” she explained.

“Why did you choose to speak to me now?”

“I have been trying to communicate with you since I came into your captivity.” Speech deja-vu. “My theory is that this can only work if human minds are, for lack of a better term, wired in a certain way, as to utilize the brain as a whole for maximum potential effort on mental tasks.”

“Telepathy…” I said slowly. I fucking knew it.

“Yes, what you would call telepathy. But this is just how animals communicate, we all have six fundamental senses: vision, audition, gustation, olfaction, somatosensory and mentisory.”

“Mentisory? Why can’t humans communicate using mentisory senses?”

“I hypothesize that, due to the amount of tasks your species concerns itself with outside that of survival and reproduction, that the amount of energy input required for mentisory sensation is not sufficient for communication. It is not without the aid of mental enhancements that the brain can focus and optimally control metabolic processes.”

“And all animals can communicate this way?”

“Yes, well those of the higher-level species. It is how we have been communicating since the development of spines and the central nervous system. My brain is consistently sending out gamma waves that can be interpreted by other developed brains. Your brain is translating my thoughts into a language that you may better understand.”

“But it is well known that the human brain is more developed than that of say, felines. How are you capable of achieving such feats of mental power but not myself?”

“Your species concerns itself with trivial issues. Yes, you have created unbelievable things I have yet to grasp, such as what you call the internet and vehicular transportation. But individuals of your species fail at understanding these impressive daily-used inventions. Modern humans have become so specialized, they build routines. Routines are the downfall of your species. This will only lead to impulsive desires to please the senses.”
I was beginning to think Bell was more intelligent than half the people I know. Actually scratch that, most people I know.

She continued, “Let us take for example, myself. Why am I in your captivity?”

“You are not in my captivity, really.” I said sulkily. “You know you’re free to leave at any time.”

“That would be the most irrational thing an animal could do after being labelled as one of your pets.” She sounded appalled. “But why did you choose me from the structure that kept many of my species and canines.”
“Because I wanted a cat. It seemed like we had a connection.”

“But why was my cage-mate not chosen. He was emitting the same frequencies as I, and acting in an almost identical fashion. A display of which we imitated from noting the successful escape rate by our adolescents. In addition, he was much more intelligent and talented than I.”

“He was a Devon Rex. We call those breeds. We categorize individuals of the same species into groups based on appearance. I prefer cats like you; a breed we call the American Shorthair.”

“Now let us branch out into generality. Why did you want a Felis catus?”

“A cat? Because I wanted a pet. I wanted an animal to keep me company during my time in school.”

“And now to my final question.” As she uttered this, Bell walked over to my desk beside the bed, reducing the distance between us. She sat directly in front me. This time she was extremely upright, flexed her muscles and exposed her beautiful front coat. Her head was tilted upwards and to the side, eyes closed and proudly showcased her physical appearance. At that moment, she looked more magnificent than ever, like a rare jaguar or lynx. I was completely awestruck.

She looked back at me. “Why am I your pet, while others are your food?”

I thought about it. Seemed like a simple question. It can’t be because of the meat itself. Surely the taste is similar and if not, likely identical to one another. It can’t be because of the level of intelligence. Humans have trained pigs, cows and chickens to do all sorts of tasks. It can’t be because we have evolved this way. Many countries still treat western pets like how we treat our livestock. It probably wasn’t religious based. Many non-religious people still keep cats and dogs, hamsters and rats, birds and reptiles. She said something a few moments earlier that rattled me. Routines. Something about its connection to physical appeal.

“Physical attractiveness? But how does that relate to routines?”

“There lies the crux of the problem. Routines. Your species lives day to day with no real worry, no real danger. Most of your tasks require very little mental strength. It is not surprising that the human brain can accomplish these tasks with very little effort, conserving energy. Though this may seem like a positive consequence, I tell you that the developed brain is truly meant to be stimulated. To be constantly worked voluntarily. This must occur or else this built up energy will be utilized more for involuntary tasks, tasks that appeal to the senses. While this could lead to mentisory capability, your species focuses more solely on the other senses. Vision is a highly regarded sense in humans. It can lead to relationships and even control your placement in what you regard as the societal ladder. It is what pleases the eye that gets the most attention.”

“So you believe humans have chosen certain animals based on their attractiveness to our eyes?”

“Certainly. This is well known amongst the higher-level animals. Look at how you define success in your society.” She paused. “In the modern world, you do not need real fur for warmth. You do not need animals for transportation. The amount of gluttony in your species is sickening. I am revolted by how cruel you and your species treat other animals solely because they do not look, appropriate.”

“But what can we do? Become vegetarians?”

“You do not need to become herbivores, you should. You can be the first species that has ever existed to have choice in the evolutionary process. It is the only way animal cruelty can truly end.”

“How can you say that when many animals eat other animals for survival? We all, as biological organisms, need certain nutrients to live healthily. Proteins, fats, vitamins, these are essential for a life we all desire.”

“We have no other alternative.”

Confused, I wiped the drool from my face and squinted at the clock. It was 8:01am. I crammed my backpack with the necessities for my morning lecture. Prior to leaving, I carefully scooped up Bell and left her outside in her basket-bed I’ve fashioned out of my old schoolbags. She stared at me with her tongue slightly out. When I came back later that afternoon, she was lying on the front doormat resting. I guess the cat’s out of the basket.

_____

“Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”
– Thomas Edison

Promise
by Kevin Mercurio

Make me a promise that you can fulfill
Love should always sparkle and be profound
Find the compromise that evades us still

Novel brings the smile against our will
Predict the other’s action and sound
Make me a promise that you can fulfill

Spend time to develop the romance skill
Sweet memories record the voyage bound
Find the compromise that evades us still

Eventual gloom peaks atop the hill
We turn our heads to past light on the ground
Make me a promise that you can fulfill

Consecutive dark nights destroy and kill
Selfish pride and anger come round
Find the compromise that evades us still

Dear love, I hold close to what brought us thrill
Before the events that have led us frowned
Make me a promise that you can fulfill
Find the compromise that evades us still

_____

“Though promising is not giving, it satisfies fools.”
– Fernão Mendes Pinto