Palo Alto Weekly 28th Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Young Adult

O21

By Kathleen Xue

About Kathleen Xue

I grew up in Palo Alto, and ever since learning about the Civil War I've loved writing wartime stories. However, this is not a wartime story, ironically, though that is usually what I write about. I go to Gunn High School and love the diversity there. My favorite class was and will always be history, though art ranks a close second. I have friends, too -- friends who have lots of stories to share. I love stories; I love listening to people tell me their stories, and often my stories stem from things that have been told to me.

Music also plays a crucial part in my ideas; depending on how I feel when I hear something, my writing will sidle towards or away from negativity. Needless to say, I was probably listening to some pretty dark music when writing this.

 

Judge's comments

"021" is one part poetry and one part science, served with a generous helping of creativity. This beautifully written dystopian story is fascinating, thought-provoking and ultimately triumphant.
— Meg Waite Clayton

"They gave me a mind, so I took the world."

The poem verses ran like electricity through 021's head. It was pure torture, as the thoughts zapped in and out again, being sucked out of her before she could begin to comprehend them. It was like being stripped naked, naked of her inner hopes and desires, her darkest of secrets—all exposed. Meaningless, now.

021 stood in a bright, sterile hospital room strangely unequipped except for a single instrument pierced into her right ear. The stainless steel edge of a thin tube peeked out, not fully hidden in the cartilage and flesh, and was immediately covered in thick rubber the color of pleasant, unassuming blue as it connected its long coil to a large black fusion reactor box. Her arms dangled lifelessly by her sides, all their energy taken to assuage the horrific nightmare flitting in and out of her already-weakened brain. Though she only wore a thin paper patients' gown, 021 did not shiver. Nor did she make any move to fight against the onslaught of pain.

To the Scientists sitting behind the hidden windows of the room, 021 was abnormally silent. She did not scream; she did not writhe. On her prosaically ordinary face there was an expression of something they could not place, could not interpret, though it would be most kindred to the look of peace. They exchanged glances, not knowing what to make of it. But each was the same as the other, feeding off of the others' ideas which did not exist because the others would try to feed off of nonexistent ideas of the same thoughtless beings. All five of the identical men in identical white lab coats thus wrote down the exact same conclusion onto their identical papers in identically impersonal handwriting, as they did with every single subject that they have ever received: "Syringe."

The unwrinkled hands of the Scientists knew only to write one word, "Syringe", as they were never trained to discern anything that would lead them to believe otherwise, and they never needed to believe any subject deserved anything other than the syringe. What the syringe was and meant, they all knew with an impartial certainty and clarity from the beginning, but as the subjects came and went over the years they began to cease caring about its aftereffects any longer. They were all well aware that it was a medical procedure that wiped away the subject's mind and memories, and that afterwards subjects either ended up committing suicide or becoming mentally incapable imbeciles. But this never mattered to begin with, as all subjects were considered objects, as all pain and emotion was supposedly inexistent.

Society had come to a point where emotion was shamed upon so much that creativity had become a crime. Any hint of innovation or self-induced thinking was taboo, and the strongest intellects were thus turned into subjects, who were then taken into testing to determine their potential harm. 021 was one of the most infectious thinkers; her ideas were contagious and spread like wildfire. She was infamous; her case needed no trial and her test required the most powerful nuclear reactor to subdue her.

Behind 021's fa├žade of placidly closed eyes was a torrent of uncontainable anger. Her mind persistently attempted to grasp any last bit, any last word or phrase that could be salvaged from the nuclear storm entering her right cerebral cortex. She had known all along the process of testing, and what was guaranteed of her after the syringe. She had known all too well. Of course, she had read all the forbidden texts offered on the black market. Suffering was only to be expected.

What surprised her, that no amount of reading could have exposed, was the blank looks of the people behind the secret windows. Hollow. 021 had known that they were the Scientists, and that they were not supposed to be seen. However, knowing where to look beforehand, she managed to spot five pairs of cornflower blue eyes on a single off-white strip of opaque screen hidden at the top right corner of the hospital room. The eyes stared at her, calculating her every move without really understanding their purpose. They looked like eyes that were solving an impossible math problem. They were devoid of expression, containing only the incessant hunger to know. It was this petrifying expression that stopped her cold. The knowledge that beyond true Society, which assumed this exact appearance, that there was nothing better to hope for, gave 021 a desolate feeling of despair.

021's name was Maries before she entered school. She had been born outside of Society free from genetic enhancing, because her parents were both mentally incapable. Childhood was like a silent movie, as her father and mother communicated only through grunts and whimpers, so pathetic it was heartwrenching. But it was the sweetest of times for Maries, as the writing never ceased. She had never learned how to pronounce her name, but her mother likewise never forgot the art of penmanship, and wrote the six beautifully scripted letters anywhere she could lay her pen on. Maries was written in curls and wisps of fragile cursive on the walls, the floors, the windows, blown away by the wind of time. But the light upon her mother's face that fought so hard to stay aflame, the look of pure adoration her father bestowed upon her so warm and familiar—these were the little gifts that she had taken for granted her first few years before Society.

As her parents deteriorated from the growing disease within their brains which they indicated as "syringe", Maries saw less and less of them, until the black and white world of Society finally engulfed her whole, leaving behind the comforting memories of family. In their last efforts to overcome the futilely aggressive disease that had inhabited their bodies and souls, a poem was scrawled neatly onto the back of her hand in the last reserves of a fountain ink pen. A composition, it was. A work of art, a piece of music, composed by pure beauty. "They gave you a mind," it read, "but you'll take the world." A single drop fell onto the words, blurring them slightly. Maries was then thrust into the dark abyss of Society.

In Society there was no such thing as kindness. People were indifferent to pain and suffering, and love was nonexistent. Maries became 021; it was illegal to have a name. But she did not forget. Her peers had grown up never knowing what true happiness was, but Maries did. She differed from the masses; the confusion of such harsh callousness crippled her. She held onto the words which she had grew up with, precious gems kept a secret in a corner of her consciousness.

"They gave you a mind, but you'll take the world," 021's mind drifted off, momentarily forgetting the pain. She had committed the worst crime of all, and that was creativity. She had not tried to openly lead a revolt. No, she had defied the Society quietly, with hidden words and sharp stabs in the dark. The wounds she made were clean and bloodless, yet they hurt all the same. She had learned to torture so intelligently, infiltrating the system in such an orderly yet unprecedented fashion that it had almost become a game. She had painted a fresco of people frolicking by an ocean on the west wall of the central clocktower. She had projected a symphony by Shostakovich on the daily news broadcast. Her poems were published into a collection that was distributed to every household in her district, then they were passed along and spread through the counties and the provinces until they were read by national officials and military officers. How she managed to do all of this, not even the highest authorities knew. 021 was immediately determined a national threat, yet she had not laid a hand on a single person.

There was one piece of knowledge that 021 held onto vehemently, and that was the hope that somehow, somewhere there would be an ultimate power above anything and everything that was not devoid of emotion and understood the significance of living. Her only hope was to expose the diversity of life to the people of the Society, or die trying. The image of the last smile she had witnessed as a child was permanently ingrained in her mind; it killed her little by little every single day to realize that no one in the Society understood true bliss.

Her mother's wistful expression glimmered in her memory. Though never said aloud, 021 knew that there was love in that smile. She had not been old enough at the time to grasp the complexity of their relationship, and to what extent her parents would love her to. If the moon existed as the books had described it, 021 knew that they would love her to much farther than that distant ivory satellite. And somehow, even when she was a little child, they were prepared to die in order for her to live. It had always been a given truth, undenied yet unspoken. Given from actions, not empty words. Heart, not head. Unconsciously, and unconditionally.

The nuclear fusion reactor box began to vibrate and shake. The poem verses continued to flit in and out, now garbled by sharp interruptions and radio static, so loud yet vacant that they occupied the entirety of 021's right cerebral cortex, giving her no ability to think. But 021 was not afraid of being hurt; she had been hurt for so long already that the feeling was now a comforting numbness. She would end up just as her parents had—unable to speak, unable to perform simple actions—but capable of the only thing that really mattered.

The Scientists behind the window, however, began to detect something was extremely wrong. The ground shook slightly below them, and the lights began to flicker in the hospital room they were observing. However, there was no emergency button to which the Scientists could obtain aid. They looked at one another blankly, of course to no avail. The subject's face remained at peace, disregarding the slight havoc occurring all around her. She was standing still and limply, but she was not mentally in the room any longer.

021 felt the exhaustion carrying her away from the hospital room. This was to be her end, she thought. A world ending in ice, not fire. The sounds dimmed down to a quiet muffle, until they all combined together into one discordant and cacophonous symphony climax, before turning into a complete and eery silence. Strange.

She opened her eyes again, slowly this time. The lights in the room were off, and she heard a faint fizzing from the reactor box. The room was all pitch dark save the light rectangle of opaque screen that barely hid the five pairs of cornflower blue eyes looking down at her. Now these eyes were filled with an inkling of astonishment and horror. 021 smiled tentatively, amazed.

"They gave me a mind, so I took the world."

Maries was free.