Friday, May 13, 2011

The Journal of Traci Xi

Daggers of the Mind
A short story By Andrew Kaikai

Icicles of fog
Like daggers pierce through our dreams
With their poisoned tips

     It took me a few years to fully understand why, but I know now that no one should know what people really think of them, no one should know the exact thoughts of others. Like a lot of things, the reality is a lot less glamorous than the dream. I was sitting in my favourite cafe, trying desperately to unwind.

    “Would you like a refill? They’re free for special customers,” asked Evren the barista.

      “No, thank you,” I replied, forcing myself to remain calm. Stray thoughts seemed to whip around me, but I willed myself to remain impervious. I’d had a crush on Evren for the longest time. Who wouldn’t? He was tall, dark, and handsome and he made a mean cappuccino. He made me feel like a giddy schoolgirl, but I knew I didn't have a hope in hell. I was a plain-Jane. Everyone said so and I really didn't want to have to hear him think it.

       I always stopped by this coffee shop on my way home from work. It was one of the few remaining that still had human baristas. All the others had androids or humanoids that had long ago crossed the uncanny valley. I’d sit in a corner with my laptop and write my memoirs for hours. The sights and sounds of the shop put me at ease in a way I rarely felt anywhere else.

            “Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in a real long time,” Evren said, pointing to my laptop. “Very retro, and cool.”

          Computers in 2059 consisted of a screen coupled with a neural uplink connection that allowed you to interface directly with them. I much preferred the old ones.

            “Thanks. Maybe I’ll take a refill, if you don’t mind.”

            “Sure thing,” he replied. He filled my cup and drifted away to the other tables as I forlornly watched. As my emotions rose, I felt the thoughts knocking at the passageways of my mind, and I forced them back.

            My name is Traci Xi, and in case you haven’t realized, I can read minds. In every other respect, I’m a completely unremarkable person. Somehow, no matter where I go, everyone calls me Traci Eleven. It first happened when I was 13. On the first day of high school, our teaching unit had called me Traci 11, and somehow it had stuck, even after trying in vain to explain that it was pronounced like the Greek letter. I had gotten used to it. I was so forgettable, so insignificant, that no one could bother to even get my name right.

            I can hear other people’s thoughts, but only when my emotions are heightened. People’s thoughts are like water pushing against the dam of my mind. The dam can only hold for so long before it bursts and extreme emotions, like love, fear or anger are the cause and when that dam bursts, every thought is like a dagger, piercing through my fragile psyche. I can almost control it, but every once in a while, I let my emotions slip and the water of people’s thoughts and feelings flow through my mind. Take the worst migraine you’ve ever had and crank it up to 11 and you might have an idea of what it feels like. I don’t want to be a hermit, forced to live in the shadows of society because of something I had no choice in. I’ve tried to live as normal a life as my ‘gift’ will allow. I allow myself the occasional indulgence at my job, but it’s for a good cause. I work as a counsellor for at-risk youth, and being able to read minds has made me very effective at my job. I allow their emotions and thoughts to wash over me, I force myself to feel the pain, fear and anger that they do and then I do my best to help them. Sometimes I’m successful.

            Stopping by the coffee shop and writing helps me unwind. It slowly returns me to my calm place, and readies me for the never-ending cycle of having to do this again tomorrow.  The writing also helps me remember bits and pieces of my childhood and life so far. Throughout my life, my memories have only been fragments, like snippets from a movie, but the writing has helped me crystallize most of it into a coherent whole.

            I remember now that my ability first began to manifest itself about 20 years ago, when I was barely 5. I remember a daycare in Anchorage. I remember the needles, and electrodes being placed on our heads, and I remember the tests they made us perform. There were about 20 of us, and we were always paired up. My partner was a boy named Billy. I barely remember what he looked like, but I remember we were inseparable.  I think somehow we were being prepared for something. The drugs were probably nootropics, meant to awaken latent psychic abilities in children.

            The first time it happened, Billy and I had got into an argument with all the seriousness of childhood. I don’t know how it happened, I must have read his thoughts, but I knew he was going to push me to the floor, and I sidestepped just in time.  “I’m not a cootie monster, Billy, you big meanie. I’m telling Dr. Emma.” I know now that he’d never actually said those words, he’d only thought them. I didn’t know any better then. Billy followed me, loudly protesting his innocence.

            Dr. Emma had being very patient and listened to both of us tell our sides of the story. Serendipitously, we had being provided with recording devices that recorded everything that happened to us. It was a gross invasion of our privacy and bodily integrity, but that was then. She realized that Billy was right, but she was smart enough to understand that maybe we’d both been right. She devised a series of tests to determine the extent of what I had done. I was the first of the children to demonstrate any psychic abilities and in a way I was one of the lucky ones. Dr. Emma was a saint (well, as much of a saint as one can be after experimenting on Children). She’d been patient and over time, she’d come to realize that my ability only manifested when I was under emotional duress, with the three most likely emotions being love, fear, and anger. But she also saw the toll that using these abilities had on my young body.

             As I became better at reading whole thoughts, and not just fragments, the headaches started, and they only became worse as time went on. Dr. Emma realized that foreign thoughts were no different from viruses. My mind was working to purge itself of these invaders and that was the reason for the side-effects. Against the wishes of her superiors, she not only taught me to tap into my ability, but she’d also taught me Zen techniques from a young age that allowed me to keep my emotions under control. This of course meant that most of the time, I couldn’t read minds at all. This allowed me to live as normal a life as I could. In her own way, I think she had loved me. I was the daughter she never had.

            Sometimes, my control would slip, and I would hear thoughts I never wanted to. It was in one of those situations that I finally heard what would become of me if I ever gained full control of my ability. My young mind didn’t fully understand it, but I knew enough to know that if it ever came to pass, my life would never be the same. Dr. Emma was appalled when I tried to explain it to her, but there was nothing she could do, not when she was up against such powerful forces. She promised me that she would do everything in her power to save me.

            The other children were not so lucky. As their abilities began to manifest in physically recognizable patterns, the men in black began to come for them, one by one. But no one ever came for me. Dr. Emma convinced them that I had completely suppressed my ability. How could they know any different? All of us in the daycare were orphans, nobodies, forgotten children. Dr. Emma who became the only mother I would ever know, adopted me after the trials were suspended. I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t, and in the end, I did become the daughter she never had.

            She died a few months ago. Official cause of death was an accident, but I know it was probably revenge for her whistle-blowing all those years ago. It took every ounce of my willpower, but I managed to suppress my grief, but since then, I've felt adrift in a hostile world. No matter what had happened to me, I had always had her, but she was gone, like a candle snuffed out by a violent wind, and all I have left are memories and mementos. They don’t quite seem enough.

            I took a final swill of my coffee, and shut down my laptop. If I was being honest with myself, I would have admitted that I didn’t want to go home. Another night spent alone, in a tiny apartment, with nothing for company except my thoughts did not sound appealing. It didn’t have to be like this. My mother’s death had been a bigger setback than I feared. My control was slowly starting to slip. I had gone years without hearing a thought. I had foolishly allowed myself to think that maybe, just maybe my gift was gone, but that was just wishful thinking.

            On my way out, Evren, the perfect Barista waved goodbye.

            “See you tomorrow, Traci with an I.”

             Despite myself, I blushed and I allowed myself a small smile as I walked to the train station that would take me home.

            The one good thing about the trains in Albany was that they were always on time. I took the 45, safe in the knowledge that within 30 minutes I would be home. Everything was well, until at the last stop before mine, I caught a glimpse of a strange man dressed in gray corduroy pants, a white shirt and a dark-gray jacket, carrying a large duffel bag. He had the look of an absent minded professor with a relaxed posture and a bland, jowly face. He had a vague smile on his face, that flickered on and off like cheap motel lights. Something about him raised my hackles. Maybe it was the fact that despite the heat of the summer day, his jacket was buttoned all the way to the top and hung heavy on his frame, like it was concealing something. He looked to me like a not-quite right facsimile of Forrest Gump. He had a faint, but unpleasant scent. It was like thunder, lightning, spiders, blood, and the sea on a cold night.  It was like nothing I had ever smelled before and something about him was intensely familiar.

        No one else seemed to take notice of him, and though I always trusted my instincts, I wondered if I was not getting too jumpy. Maybe I was chasing shadows, seeing phantoms where none existed, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Even though I was trying not to, I couldn’t help but read his emotions. They were like a hurricane sweeping everything within their path. The pain, anger and hatred were so strong as to almost overwhelm me. His thoughts and feelings were an invading army knocking at my consciousness.

Hate, kill, murder, Bomb, Billy

       I realized that the duffel bag contained a bomb, and whatever his plans were, I had to do what I could do stop him. I didn’t know how, but that didn’t matter. My mother had spent her entire life trying to atone for her complicity in the barbaric trials that had created me. I now realized what had been troubling me. I had spent most of my life looking at my gift as a curse, as something that had marked me negatively. In the end, it would only be what I made it out to be: either a force for evil or an agent of good. This was my destiny. If I made it out of this alive, I endeavoured to stop feeling sorry for myself and seize the reins of my life. But first, there was the little matter of the bomb. Something didn’t feel right.
            The strange man stayed on the train till we reached the government district. I was starting to read his thoughts more clearly, but they were muted, and seemed to be coming from a place far away. I made sure I followed him, but not too closely. Throughout, I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I followed the strange man into the federal building and he stopped in the middle of the lobby, turned around and looked directly at me.

            “Do you remember me Traci? I remember you.”

I tried not to show my surprise, but evidently I failed.

“Don’t look so surprised. I know you’ve been reading my thoughts. You must have heard the name Billy,” he continued.

            I had to remain calm to ensure that the situation did not escalate, although it was clearly obvious that if a bomb were to go off, we’d be the only two casualties. 7 pm on a Friday was perhaps not the best time to detonate a bomb in a federal building. Nothing was making any sense, and it only got worse.

            “Don’t worry. I don’t have a bomb, but I have a message for you. Listen and listen carefully. A great storm is coming. You may think yourself safe, but rest assured none of us are.”

            “Who are you, and what did you do to Billy?” I interrupted.

            “I am Billy, or at least what’s left of him. I can see the confusion in your eyes, but it’ll all make sense shortly. You may not remember Traci, but when you and I were younger, we were victims of government experiments. We were given dangerous and experimental drugs in their sick and twisted quest to create super soldiers. They needed people like you, those who lived their lives on the outside, so they could see the long term effects of the treatment under different environmental conditions. You never escaped. They’ve been watching you, and soon, they will come for you.

           I was the first the men in black came for. My gift, if you can call this cursed thing that was astral projection. I can create avatars of my own choosing and project my consciousness into them. That’s what you’re seeing now. My avatars have physical form. They can touch, feel, they can do anything I can do, except die. The military saw the applications. They used me and some of the other children for black ops missions, all the while preparing us for what they said would be a great war between us and the denizens of an unknown world.

          Of course, as you well know, our ‘gifts’ do not come without a price. Every time I project my consciousness into an avatar, my physical body gets weaker. If only you could see me now.” He laughed bitterly and continued.

          “I’m not the chubby-cheeked boy you remember. I’m dying Traci. This will be my last avatar. I came to give you one final message. The people after me will come after you too. Their memories are long and their reach is infinite. But you have power beyond even your wildest dreams. Your imagination is all that holds you back. Free yourself from the shackles of your own mind, and you will be up to the challenge. You always were the strongest of us, and you will have to be stronger still if you are to survive what comes next.”

         He took a piece of paper out of the empty duffel bag and handed it to me. It contained a list of names.  I took the paper and slipped it into my coat pocket.

        “This list contains the names of all the survivors of the experiments. You are all that is left, and you will need each other if you are to live through this. This is the end of my road. I wish things had been different, Traci. I wish things had been better, but there are no happy endings in these times. Goodbye, and don’t mind the explosion. It seems when my consciousness dies, there’s an exorbitant release of psychic energy, but your abilities should shield you.”

      And just like that, the strange man, Billy’s avatar, vanished into thin air. This was followed by a massive pressurized wave that rocked the entire federal building and knocked me off my feet.

       I hurried out of the federal building. A crowd was already forming outside, and I did my best to get lost in it. On the horizon, a great thunderstorm had materialized and dry lightning tore the sky asunder. Everything around me seemed to dematerialize, a great wind forced me to close my eyes, and when I opened my eyes, I was back in the coffee shop, alone and Evren was closing the store. It was three hours later.

       I’d never dreamt so vividly before. My ears were still ringing from the shockwave, yet somehow, I felt freer than ever before. I felt recharged, rejuvenated, like I had been activated from a deep slumber.  The memories of the dream slowly started to fade away as I packed up and got ready to leave, but before I did, there was something I had to do. I walked up to the front where Evren was busy polishing the counter. He turned to me and gave me his disarming smile.

         “I see you’re up, sleepy head. You’ve been out for the past three hours. I would have woken up, but you looked so peaceful there, sleeping like a little angel.”

        “Sorry about that. Work must take a bigger toll on me than I realize.” He simply smiled his enigmatic smile at me and nodded. I had to continue, before I lost my nerve, and I could feel the emotions rising in me. I didn’t want to pre-emptively hear his rejection.

         “Evren, I was wondering if you’d like to get coffee sometime.”

        “Well, I work in a coffee shop, so getting coffee isn’t really a problem.”

         I felt my face heat up with embarrassment, and even though my mind was surprisingly free of stray thoughts, I plowed ahead.

         “No, I mean, you and me, together. It’s okay if you’re not interested.” I turned to leave, but he reached out a hand to stop me.

       “I’d love to. How does tomorrow sound? I know a really great cafe a few blocks away. We can meet here and walk there together.”

        I breathed a small sigh of relief.

       “Yeah, tomorrow sounds good. I’ll see you then. I should probably get home. Have a good night.”

        “See you tomorrow, Traci.”

        I wrapped my coat tightly around me to ward off the evening chill and stuffed my hands in my coat pockets. There was a piece of paper in it with a list of vaguely familiar names. I knew for a fact that I had not had it with me earlier in the day. It must have been slipped into my jacket while I was asleep. I put it back into my pocket and forgot all about it along with the already fading memory of my strange dream. I let the sounds of the night wash over me and the distant hum of millions of thoughts filter through me.

       Nobody’s life is perfect, mine included, but I had spent far too much of it feeling sorry for myself. There’s a plan in everything, and maybe the pain I endured as a child was part of a greater purpose. Nobody ever gets second chances, and my mother’s sacrifice had given me the chance of one, and I would not waste it. That’s when I realized that my headache was gone, and I felt more in control of my abilities than ever. I couldn’t explain what had happened in the cafe that had caused me to lose three hours, but the important thing was that I was going to take charge of my life. Tomorrow would be bright. I allowed myself a small smile as I walked to the train station that would take me home.


      As Traci walked to the train station, she was watched by two men in black. One was older than the other, but they looked remarkably alike. They wore dark suits and sunglasses and held black briefcases. They spoke with an odd cadence.

      “You were right. She doesn’t remember” the younger man said.

       “How could she? It never happened, but when the time comes she must be made ready. She is important.”

      And with that, they turned around and disappeared into the pitch-black night.

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