Another short story after a long hiatus
|Routine: consistency is the backbone of civilization. We’re here today through those countless days and lives of those people that went before us. Taking a look at it, it’s pretty marvelous, isn’t it? This world all around us is a testament to what humans are capable of: this era, we’re all about spaceships, skyscrapers, and augmented-reality. And of course, I’m speaking of the theoretical “we,” mind you. The way the world’s built, you understand, is very defined.
That black-haired woman over there with the data pad? She’s a Lucent. A lot of people are. They have their own life rules. They believe that humanity has a great cosmic significance and we’re on some arbitrary track to enlightenment. They’ve got their stories and beliefs to go with it. Their origin story says that a cosmic deity purposed this planet as the cradle for us to develop and ultimately venture out into the universe. One day, when they’re sufficiently advanced and enlightened, they’d find their creator out there amongst the galaxies and stars. All saccharine sunshine with that lot. They’ve got it rather good, honestly. They’re the pretty ones. If we make contact with aliens one day, they’d have a group of beautiful Lucents as the ambassadors.
The other end of the dichotomy are the Umbrals. We’re just the gears of this machine. I’ve got my job, and I do it. Us types, you’ll never see us on a poster for Space campaigns. I fix things, and that’s all I’ll ever do. I’ll be pushing papers at the ass-end of a space rocket when it’s time for humanity to meet the Lucent deity.
It’s not that I wouldn’t love to dream like the Lucents. But the system dictates that it isn’t for me. Anyone looks at me, they see an Umbral male, and all of that social baggage that comes along with it. Attached to me is my network profile, so you can see what I do, what I like, and understand that I’m never going to be anything other than that generic Umbral male. Literally going nowhere in life. There’s just the shadows for me.
I wouldn’t lie to you, so I’ll tell you that it’s irritating to have to put up with this nonsense when I’m out in public. That’s why I live vicariously through the ‘net and the virtual. I’m not an “Umbral male” when no one else is around to try to tell me that I am. That type of reinforcement is stifling. So, I’ve learned to make that escape away from all of it.
I’m telling you this because I’m haunted by these thoughts, and I’ve got no one else to tell it to. Deal with it, okay?
Just another day like any other. I was out, being the usual ghost that I am, because, despite being told that I’m an “Umbral male,” I’ve never felt like I belonged. I started to look at those Umbrals the same way I looked at the Lucents. Limiting themselves, I’d think. I’d so love to talk to anyone, but out in this world, there are the systems of labels. You saw that man in his suit, and you could already guess his likes, dislikes, political beliefs, and the unrealized-yet-certain aversion to you based on the abstracts he conjured in his own mind. He could never look at you with his eyes and see anyone more than what he
had been trained to see, based from his normative presumptions. I could say I’m guilty of the same thing. Was I judging this man before I even gave him an opportunity to disprove? This reinforcing loop is unbreakable. Trapped, I think. But I’ve tried many times before, and the presumptions are always reinforced by the people you’d hope could break them.
Regardless of what I could ever want to be, I was an “Umbral male.” This is why I ghost. Did I tell you that already?
I decided to drift by the political rally, to observe the trend towards ideological radicalization. People always got carried away with their things they believed. I could tell you now that Umbrals and Lucents would inevitably turn to violence against one another at some point in the future. These people, they took these ideas and made their own little walled gardens to hide in. In their world, they were objectively purposed as Lucents and Umbrals. It seemed crazy from beyond the mess of it, but no one seems to get that. No one ever does.
The rally seemed to be pro-Lucent, and what I gathered from the speech from the well-fed man, that stood before the monument to the first space colony ‘Vassago,’ the Lucents were trying to lobby to reduce benefits to Umbrals in order to invest more towards off-world colonization. Apparently, the looming threat of an economic recession reveals true priorities.
Honestly, it all seemed a bit like noise to me. I scanned the crowd, and got the usual scorn-filled eyes from the economically-pressed Lucents that saw me as that “Umbral male.” The Umbrals looked at me with expectant eyes. More of the same as I’ve ever seen. People would always assume or expect. Always putting their thoughts as an ‘overlay’ onto me. I might as well had been a hollow-man to be strung up and made-to-dance for their purposes.
Those boring eyes, I saw many of them that day. The ones that had you all figured out.
Until I came across her eyes. Oh, those eyes that pierced through the glazed-over dull sea of eyes of the crowd. I couldn’t forget them because they weren’t eyes that were expecting anything. She used those eyes to see, not to project. You could say I was projecting in this instance, but I damn-well knew what I saw because I had never seen such beautiful, perceiving eyes up until then. She was untagged, not on the network. Un-labeled. Not a Lucent, or an Umbral. A goddamned free human-being.
She smiled at me, and I just wanted to pause the entire shitty world right there and then if I could. But it didn’t work that way, and just as soon as she smiled, she was gone. What she would become to me, I nicknamed her “Splinters.”
The thought of her haunted me. Splinters. Stuck there, tormenting. Undefined possibility.
As the years passed, the world became irrelevant to me. There it was, the ‘virtual’ reality in which people believed themselves their roles in that abstract. I was a creature that was burdened, tethered by the physical reality of what was. And then there was my mind that wandered.
I’d walk late at night with these thoughts and the dread of being trapped in this world that lacked depth. It was like a script that never really developed: shallow passions and spectacles that paled so very dearly in comparison to the eyes of that woman I saw so very long ago.
I would sit at my desk, in silence, and contemplate the possibility that I’d never see another human being for the rest of my days. There was that single genuine moment that invalidated a lifetime of hollow ceremony and ritual.
There was always paperwork to do. A hollow future to perform to, but those splinters remained.
Who was she, and what did she believe? What did she think? What could she become? What were the magnificent things she dreamt of?
I never saw her again.