The following story is a new piece of fiction by celebrated author, Blake Butler. For more of his work, visit www.blakebutler.org
No matter how close by I try to keep him in the fields, my last remaining brother’s got no chance. Every day he lives seems like his last day, regardless of how far he’s already come in understanding local code, and there’s only so much I can do to help him act the part we’ve been assigned. He keeps disappearing behind the sprawl of intoxicating foliage each time he bends to take a knee (which he thinks I don’t know he’s doing), so he can lay against the ground and listen for our mother, may she rest in silence. You wouldn’t want to hear what she’d be saying to us now even if you could, I’ve told him calmly, over and over, but he just wants to keep believing there’s a message, that her existence had a point.
Also, I know he likes to take his dick out and get some sun on it, so it will look nice in pictures. I’ve seen the desperate contacts he’s always sending out to strangers through his virtual social media accounts, which even he knows now don’t connect to anyone real, and can only end for him in shame. But our family has never been the kind who are able to do as asked, which is why we’re stuck out here, and why there’s only two of us remaining.
I’m about to program a pulse into the shock lining of my brother’s mask so he’ll stand back up and get to work, when before my finger’s ever on the trigger, I hear him screaming like he’s burning — a sound no longer as common as it had once been. Immediately the local system picks up the signal of my brother’s howling and starts broadcasting it live from unseen speakers overhead, as is the rule: no interpersonal communication that can’t be heard at once by one and all, for our own protection under the supposedly liberal mandate that all surveillance must be made public record, which everybody knows is just a gesture. It’s one we wish would go away, as the broadcast is always so intense it makes the ground shake, while causing migraines that can last months at a time.
And so again I am too late; again I’ve failed to do my duty as my bloodline’s overseer. This particular outburst goes on longer than it should, too; his painful wailing artificially extended to feel as if it might last forever, so effective is the system in its deterrence of disobedience. The false gold teeth in my face begin to ache as if they’ll fall out, my bones all bubbling on the inside, cringing so hard I can only see out of one eye at a time, squinting for traction, any place where I exist.
Even when the sound is over, I can still feel it in my chest, lodging as wounds that will last a lifetime, helping me to become a better citizen under their burden. I wait for my brother to call out; to at least appear somewhere above the continuously mutating cropline, so that I can come and help him up as I have always, despite my promise that when the shit hits the fan, he’s on his own. I want to help get him back into order before they mark him permanently unemployable, but there continues to just be no sound but the itch of the ground beneath us. The culling scissors assigned to me and me alone still auto-slicing the air as I grip them with my good hand, suggesting I get back to work, reject all interpersonal concern, and carry on as I’ve been contracted to.
The pretend sun above is low. Only where they’ve stamped the logo of the corporation for whom we all work — on the impermeable radiation barrier just overhead every few feet — is there relief from the sun’s ongoing blinding of any wider world. Our condition is only made bearable by the mask that we must wear, so that we all have the same faces. This seemed a kind of relief at first, possibly giving me a chance to make a friend one day, if I ever met someone besides my brother, but by now the plastic stings and sticks to my face so much, I’m never certain that I’ll be able to get it off by the shift’s end, whenever it comes. It certainly doesn’t help me see where my brother might be his trailing silence more sickening after all the agony he’d just let out. We’re only supposed to scream into our private PainErasers, on our own time, as he well knows; he will be penalized as such out of his pay, as will I, since all our payments come together, in the form of a share of the very shit that we’re in charge of harvesting for the corporation, though neither of us still remember what the crops are really for. I think you’re supposed to eat it, or boil it down and take a bath in it, or maybe worship it, but the strains that they produce now just make us both sick. We do not have the clearance to “enjoy,” though that does not stop us from feeling motivated to work for a living, in case one day they change our minds.
At least I can still somewhat remember better times, too: when I would get so fucked up that it didn’t matter that my teeth were falling out from the syrupy food they’d pipe into our masks; how when I tried to think of time in a way that might help me measure how long I’d been on the job so I could assess my pay grade; how our beds when we still had them were full of the cremated ashes of our family members who refused to do their job. It had been only by what seemed a random stroke of luck at the time that we found our mother’s bloated body during a restricted period, when the auto-governing system became disabled by some old god’s hand and they weren’t able to keep proper tabs on who was still alive for a while. We got to bury her here in primitive fashion according to her last wishes, so that as we toil away in the fields of our family’s sector, we might feel her with us, still right there, even if she’s unable to actually watch over us like the scripture websites once promised. She’s just mud now, after all, like all the others. One day I hope to be mud too, forever with her side by side, but with my luck by then they’ll have invented a way to keep us alive even in death, to guide our hands unto their assigned tasks even as we can no longer feel them.
Several further pulses on the shock system and my brother still won’t answer. And all the land out here looks just the same, in all directions, which is why we’ve lost at least two dozen of my other brothers in the same way, why I no longer know which way is down (toward Old Hell) and which is up (toward Hell 2, as founded by the Belief Contract that I signed to be allowed to work outdoors instead of in the Gloom). We at least used to know which way to go when the day would end to go back home for a bit, but now the days don’t want to end, and the mask provides all the sleep we’d ever need. You can work while you’re standing up zonked out as any other, thanks to science; it’s like magic. Such a gift. How did people work before they invented work masks, I often wonder? I can ask inside my head but the mask won’t answer, though it knows. It doesn’t want me to get in trouble. It reprimands and supplicates in turn. It knows what to take seriously among my thoughts, and what to just let me going on dealing with.
For instance, if it wished to, my mask could show me exactly where my only brother must still be, according to the map inside my face, which is restricted for usage only during drone strikes by the enemy, including our ex-God. It could tell me which way the wind would blow if there was wind here, if I could still feel wind ever, and where exactly I’d be shredded on live broadcast by amoebic strands of lab-engineered viruses if they decide I’m no longer on their side, that I’m rejecting. I’ve tried several times to confess my anti-allegiance as such, to give in and let them take me apart, perhaps even put me underground with my mother like I should be; buried alive as she was once they discovered how we’d hidden her, digging her up and resuscitating her, putting her under while we were forced to watch on a lunch break that otherwise would never come. But they know I don’t mean it; they know I’m thankful. Or one day I will be. Or wish I had been and always will. It all seems so complicated sometimes, but really it’s simple. It’s all there is.
I try to call out my brother’s name, the same as my name, as every name ever, though it ends up coming out as vomit through my nose, which is a good sign I should stop while I’m still ahead. It’s the mask’s job to figure out what you want to say and say it for you, better than you ever could; and what it knows you shouldn’t say, it makes you pay for, from the inside, before you have a chance to fuck it up. It makes all this social interaction stuff so much more conceptually simple, really; I’ve never known exactly what to say. Mostly I just listen to the national podcast on repeat inside my head, and laugh at the jokes though I already know the punchlines, waiting to black out again. But the mask should know, regardless of its edits, that I need to know where my brother is, if for no other reason than our work. I am his boss, after all, and he his mine. We work together to live in law’s good graces and complete our part of the Harvest so that those above us in the Corporation can grow and thrive. Like it or not, we must survive at any cost, at any pay grade, or we will shortly receive our comeuppances, which I have been assured are even worse than endless years of work.
I’m moving through the crops, parting their leaves with my arms to make a path. I can almost feel pleasure in the way the stalks and bulbs surround me. They’re such beautiful drugs, the kind you only see in Memory Drones now, and so are not allowed to actually remember except for how it makes you want to do your job, so that someone, somewhere, can reap the pleasure. I’m thankful for the mask’s receptor-blockers which make it impossible for me to experience such sensations; for, once, some time so long ago it can’t be real, I’d been a fiend for feeling good, for numbing pain. Now I know that pain is an appendage, and not being able to feel it is a bad thing, as is dreaming of a world different than the world we live in.
No matter how far I go, I’m still right where I am. I cannot smell my brother’s certain death on the air, nor do I receive confirmation from the mask’s operative software that he’s been acquired or relocated, as had all the others, such as my sister and my father and all my half-friends. I’m not supposed to keep a tally, but I can’t help it, and I know that this is why I’ve never been promoted or given more terrain to harvest, further from home. Those of us who can’t stop feeling, they’ve well warned us, are those they cannot give an inch. And I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t trust me either, though I’ve never done anything but tend the crops and wait for word.
I don’t even fight it at all as the recent remembrance of what might have happened to my brother continues fading in me with every step, the fields enclosing in around me nearer and nearer as my better software does its job. The software reminds me I’m only looking for him in hopes that when I find his body, I can steal his mask and loot his inbox, to share the perverted secrets that he’d kept against the nation’s will, to get my eyes on the virtual nudities they’d projected for him to keep him going. Even just imagining it makes me ill, as the mask tightens on my face in a demonstration of the according punishment they’d continuously escalated for his wrongdoings until finally it’d popped the brain inside his head, with so much force I can’t imagine how there’s any room left for my face still there behind it, even in this brief Empathy Simulation. But by now such pressure, even on someone as good as me, has little effect; it has tightened like this on my own skull so many times, for my own infractions, wiping away all inner impressions of myself to prove its point, and each time you get used to it, and even appreciate it for how it has helped you avoid becoming You. Who wants to remember how their own face looks anyhow, or what it desires? Much less your shitty brothers’ faces, anyone else’s, this whole soft nation’s visage. What all of us ever really want by now, as the mask reminds me, is to be left to my devices, beyond temptation, so that I might allowed to continue with the harvest for the benefit of those we serve, forevermore, regardless of whether I myself or those I loved once could ever be one of them.
As the mask tightens then in relation to my acknowledgment that it has — another infraction — I find I can’t remember my brother at all but in sharp flashes; all the illegal things he’d ever done, a list too long to try to leak. Even my passing urge to follow his lead and lay down on the black soil and beg my mother to absorb me, which I had once held onto as an outsourcing of my faith, now feels only like a poison I can’t squeeze out. It’s a feeling I know is only allowed somewhere in me still to fund the mechanism of my fertile torment, to keep me moving, on my feet, if for no other reason than I might still hit our family’s seasonal Output Objective all on my own, the mask reminds me, and thereby be allowed full ownership of all the Bonus Software Tokens we would have otherwise once had to share, for which I would be entered into a sweepstakes for a Persona Upgrade of my choosing, like wider hands or cleaner teeth, about which I’ve spent countless hours fantasizing over during my toilet breaks, which are otherwise too short to make a toilet in. Thankfully I have many seasons left to sort out, by the mask’s logic, which attribute might most benefit my performance in the endless harvest going forward, until my death, or at least until I find a way to fuck it up as well, like every other person ever, before they crush our species out at last and reassign this entire quadrant to someone who no longer needs to be looked over or encouraged — someone who knows that when your brother screams, you don’t respond.
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