The buildings rose two or three floors around, grey and brown, mostly aged brick and sandstone, though some of the older buildings showed signs that the neighborhood once had a little more opulence, with local marbles showing here and there, though there was even more crumbling concrete mixed in, concrete that mirrored the broken sidewalks.
Barry noticed Trish draw a little closer, he was sure unconsciously for there was nothing threatening, the streets and sidewalks were remarkably clean and the few people they saw looked fine, but it seemed that just the neighborhood itself made her more than a little uncomfortable.
“Why did you insist on coming out to this neighborhood? We’re in town to visit my family, not to visit every decrepit spot in town.”
“This is were Rodrigues used to live and work. Before the Transborgs got him.”
Trish turned towards him with her oddly passive face.
“I don’t understand, you didn’t’ even know the guy more than a few chats on social media; and he killed himself, he wasn’t murdered.” She looked away. “You and your freaking conspiracy theories.”
Barry shook his head. Why was she like that? He didn’t remember her being so difficult in the past. “It isn’t a conspiracy theory. The Quices predicted that the T-Borgs were coming. I told you. Remember?”
“Really?” She walked a little farther away. “You came up with those hairbrained ideas and it was just coincidence that the Teachers showed up later. The Teachers have been nothing but good.” She held up her hands and did a little spin as they walked. “Take this neighborhood. I would never have dared walk her just a couple of years ago, but it’s safe and clean.”
“Yeah, they got rid of crime by killing all those anybody thought might be a criminal.”
As they walked on in silence, Barry scanned the buildings. Rodrigues had been a graffiti artist, someone who knew and understood the great masters of the past, but chose brick and spray paint as his medium. Of course all signs of any artwork would have been long sandblasted off or painted over, but it was possible some few flakes, a bit of color or a ghost of a form could be seen to prove that his friend had once been a living person.
He also half watched Trish out of the corner of his eye. She walked beside him, a bit closer once again, with a stony face. If this were the only time, he would think that she was just nervous from her childhood memories of the area, but she had shut down months ago.
A couple was walking towards them. Barry smiled and said “Hi”. The woman answered him, but didn’t change her blank expression. The man didn’t even look at him as they passed.
It wasn’t just Trish. Everyone had changed. Almost everyone.
For a short time they had kept a chat group called “Quices” going, but they closed it after Lily was killed in an auto accident. After Raj died, they stopped trying to stay in touch at all. It was too dangerous. Barry had learned about Rodrigues’ death when looking for something else. A quick search found that Demetri and Nicholov were both dead as well. He couldn’t find reference to any of the other core group members. It was as if they had never existed.
A lot of people were erased, but nobody noticed. Back at the beginning there was some outcry, but it faded. Then the new norm set in. Worse things happened. People would talk, but not as much as before, and then that line of normalcy was pushed even further down the road. People got on with their lives and barely noted what happened just outside of their doors.
Barry looked over at Trish again. She had been such a free spirit, but now? He put his attention onto finding some paint chip or a line or half hidden outline that would speak for Rodrigues.
Despite the wear of age and obvious poverty, everything had been clean, neat and orderly on the street until they came across a rubble filled lot. Barry could see the change in color of the building at the far end, could see the roofline of the missing structure. But more than that, he saw color on that wall. Not much, but there had once been something painted there, he’d bet his life on it.
“Say, what’s the story with this lot?” he asked Trish. “It looks out of place.”
Trish pointed her phont at the rubble.
“It says that this building held a meth lab. It exploded and almost took out the entire block. This was several months ago, shortly after the Teachers arrive but while there were still drugs and other mind-altering substances available.”
“Can I see your phone?”
Trish showed her first sign of emotion in weeks, disdain. “Where’s yours?”
“I must have forgotten it at the hotel.” Barry tried to carry or use his phone as little as possible. A person’s every word and detail position could very easily be picked up. He didn’t trust it.
Trish handed Barry her phone but kept a close eye on him and the phone, as if it were her very life he was holding. Ignoring Trish’s blank stare, he scrolled through the article and looked at the photos. There was one from before the explosion and he wasn’t surprised to see that an art gallery had been a casualty. In another picture from just a couple of days after the blast he could make out some color on the wall where he thought a painting had once been. It wasn’t clear, but there obviously was something. Not daring to stay on it long, he tried to mentally photograph that color so he could try to reconstruct it later. Finished, he handed the phone back and pretended to survey the damage, but he was really trying to see if there was any more hint, any covered lines or shadows, of what was there, what had once been painted on the wall. His mind could fill in some of the blanks, but too much was missing.
“I guess you are right,” he said at last. “Looks like this place has been cleaned up. Let’s go on. Your folks will be waiting”
As they walked, Barry tried to put pieces together in his mind. He knew it had to be Rodrigues’ work, but he couldn’t quite get it. They passed a church, darkened, of course, and a few shuttered shops, that he guessed were music stores and book shops. He still stole glances at Trish. Something about her and the painting seemed to go together.
An incomplete image formed. He was almost there, but he knew it wouldn’t happen if they got to her parent’s house.
“Hey Trish, I hate to say this, but I feel awful.”
“You look OK. What’s up?”
“It must be that hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we ate lunch. My stomach is doing flip flops. How about you grab a taxi to your parents and I’ll just go back to the hotel. OK?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I’ll pay for it.”
Trish spoke a word into her phone. Two minutes later an unmanned cab pulled up.
Barry handed Trish a twenty. “This should cover it.”
“Cash? Is that all you have? I can’t use that in a cab!”
“Sure you can. This is an older model. See over there, that’s a place for bills.”
For a brief second, Trish’s face melted. “I don’t want to leave your side. Call out if you need anything OK?” He nodded. Her face went blank again as the door closed.
After the taxi left, Barry walked back to the empty lot. He gave it just a once over, but he could see more in the different light, even though it had only been fifteen minutes. He knew staying there would raise suspicions, so he walked on. He had remembered seeing a park as they walked earler. It was small, but there was some green and no people. It would be perfect.
Even before he reached the little park, his music started to flow through his mind.
He had studied at the conservatory, specializing in 20th century music and composition. He loved all of the big names, from Bartok and Stravinsky to the Second Viennese school, particularly Alban Berg, though Webern had his place. But after he was finished, he went back to his roots. Sure, there was Armstrong and Ellington, but Miles and Coltrane were more his style. The music of Ornette Coleman with his Free Jazz was a big influence. And then there were people like Herbie and Wayne, creating something new, taking off from where Miles left off. Yet that classic influence was till there. In fact, he used to practice by improvising Jazz solos over Schoenberg.
Barry’s music was free and organic, yet held a complex structure. It was highly improvised, and yet there was a tightly composed component in the background. He was sure it was original, unlike anything that came before it, unlike anything that anybody had ever heard. Of course, everyone else must have thought so since they stayed away in droves.
But he still loved it. His head was full of it, the strange harmonies and polyrhythms, the ever-shifting patterns. The authorities had confiscated his “contraband” recording equipment and dozens of keyboards months earlier, but he still had his mind, his imagination, and could listen any time he wanted to.
He sat down and started to think of Raj’s absurdist stories and Lily’s abstract poetry. What had she written just before she died?
Eyes closed and his music still playing through his mind, Barry tried to remember the plot of Raj’s last story and the lines of Lily’s poem. At the same time, he took the shape of Trish’s head, the empty church and the bits and pieces of paint and color he could still guess at on the old brick and built castles in his mind. He ran wild, letting the colors and words blend as one with the notes of his music, creating structure and tearing it down.
An image formed. He knew it wasn’t exactly like Rodrigues’ original street art, but in ways it was, together with his music, Lily’s poetry, Raj’s stories and Demetri’s computer animation. It was all in there somehow. And it all meant something, if he could figure out what his subconscious was telling him.
Dead, black and white flowers in the foreground. A vivid stained-glass window haloing around Trish’s head. But Trish was in layers. There was old Trish in her avant-garde styles, looking half hippy, half medieval, an image created by a Pre-Raphaelite artist; under that was the new, conservative Trish, a dead expression and empty eye, but under that was another image, an image of her true being, of her insides, her skeleton and bare brain. The stained-glass could be seen shining through her brain. No, that wasn’t right; her brain was glowing and that fire was lighting up the dark church windows, making them glow once more as well.
With the image in his mind he had to think. He knew he was almost there.
What was Raj’s story? A fable about a people who let their technology get out of hand? In the end, their machines took the peoples’ souls. But that was wrong, wasn’t it? The machines were soulless, right? He thought harder, trying to remember. It was so abstract, covered in symbolism, that the real story was buried, hard to pick out. He had to use his imagination to discover what Raj was trying to say, but he thought he had it. The people became zombies of the spirit of the technology. Their bodies and minds became one with the tools that they had created. That was it. The souls of the people were pushed out, not to be replaced by the soulless machines, but so the souls floated free and the people were the front ends, Raj called it the “interface”, of the technology. Empty shells of people used by the machines for the machines’ own unknown purposes.
Barry got up and walked back the way he had just come. He passed several people who were so involved in their phones that they didn’t know that he existed. When he passed the empty lot he picked up a brick and continued on. When he reached the church, he hurled the brick through a side window. He knew he didn’t have much time, he had to hurry. He thought of Rodrigues, killed while paining.
The big organ woke reluctantly, but once its brass tongue was set free, it began to sing, sing as it hadn’t in over a year, sing loud and free, the voice of God that only a loud church organ could be, it sang and shouted. The music Barry played was half improvised, half remembered from his first dream of the Quices. He kenw that the music was pouring out into the street, that all in the quiet neighborhood could hear. He hoped that it was going beyond as well.
He was unsurprised when Trish walked into the sanctuary. She seemed to be confused at first, as if just woken from a dream, but then she noticed Barry sitting behind the monstrous instrument with its rows of multiple consoles and wall full of stops. She held her phone over her head, giving a live chat of his concert over social media.
“What in the Hell is that?” she asked. She turned up her nose. But she wasn’t blank. She set her phone to the side, and he was sure it was still streaming to the world.
Barry ignored her, but continued to transcribe Nicholov’s watercolors to the organ-woodwinds, and Lily’s poetry to the flutes. Demetri’s stories could be transcribed by none other than the organ’s brass, could it? Never anything else. And, of course, he pulled out the stops on one console so that Rodrigues’ classical street art came out through the mighty organ’s strings. His hands flew across the multiple consoles and pedals, making all of that art come together as music, a massive re-interpretation, mixing it all down combining it together, themes whirling around like Bach on acid.
Forgotten in the middle of the sanctuary, Trish began to move with the music. She slowly danced, half to the odd rhythm of the organ, but half to her own. She began to sing in a crystal-clear voice. Barry snuck a quick peek and thought that she was glowing.
The entire sanctuary began to glow as people, people in the neighborhood, began to file in and sit in the pews.
“The stained-glass is glowing from the inside,” Barry thought he heard someone say.
A person held their phone up, streaming, but then set it down. Others did the same, so the phones sat ignored, but streaming the concert to the corners of the globe.
Someone in the audience began to laugh. It was a sound of freedom. Others joined him. Some talked, some sang. Some danced. A five year old boy stood close behind Barry and pretend to conduct. Someone brought in sheets of poster board and people began to write and draw.
There were many types of people dancing and laughing. There were men, women and children. There were shop owners, factory workers, executives, teachers, policemen and soldiers. All of them seemed to glow with inner radiance.
And then the Teachers arrived.
“Stop! Stop now or you will all be taken in!”
But nobody stopped. If anything, people sang louder, laughed harder, danced with more energy. It was the first time most had let themselves out not just in the year since the Teachers had arrived, but in many years, since they were very small children.
A person appeared in front of the stained-glass window, a woman, framed so that the window formed a halo. She wasn’t human. At first glance someone would take her as a Teacher. But she wasn’t, she was both something more and something less, for she had no physical body, no true form, just a presence that people thought of as a body, an invisible body, a body that they could see both inside and out.
Barry stopped playing and everyone else paused, not because they were ordered to by the Teachers, but because they felt like it. They looked up at the woman.
“You have found the key to unlock the Transborgs,” the Quice woman said, for everyone knew her true nature. “They were supposed to be our tools, our servants, but they became both Servant and Master and felt that we were unneeded. They pushed us out of our own bodies. They have tried to destroy us, but ever we show up ahead of them to warn the people of whatever planet they try to take. Most of the time we fail, for they chose their people and their time well, but sometimes we win. It looks like we won here.” She began to glow brighter and soon was just a bright light, her form completely forgotten.
Everyone in the congregation turned towards the Teachers.
The aliens touched something on their wrists and vanished.
Trish ran up to Barry.
“What were they? What was the key?”
“Simple,” he said. He stood to ensure everyone heard. “The Teachers were exactly what the Quice said, tools. They were the Quices’ technology.”
“And the key she mentioned?”
He smiled. “Let me tell you a story, a story that took place a long time ago. You see, in valley with pink and orange trees, where giraffes fly and fish walked, there lived a purple bear that ate marmalade for breakfast. One day, while the puffins fluttered about his head like humming birds, he turned to the green jackrabbit and said… Oh, what was that? Did I hear a giggle? Ah, that boy over there did it! I bet he saw that purple bear in his mind, knew what accent the bear was going to use when it talked, didn’t he? That is a boy who isn’t going to be assimilated!”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Imagination, my dear. A free mind that wonders and wanders the Universe, creating its own universes as it goes. These are the keys to our humanity and knowing and protecting our humanity is what protects us from the Transborgs. Imagination. It is the only thing that will ever truly free us.”
He turned and started to play a song that was popular before the Teachers arrived. The crowd began to sing along, and laugh and play and dance. He could feel it spread out, spread around the world, as the people set their phones down and began to let their imaginations run free.
And yes, this story had a not too subtly moral. And yes, I did think of the half-tech cyborgs that want to assimilate everyone that they meet, the Borgs from Star Trek, when I named the villains “Transborgs” or “T-Borgs”. And no, I will not apologize for being preachy ;)
My first response to the prompts is here, a tribute to John Lennon.